Today I’m exhausted. So very tired. But I’m here. In the café. My body is like, “What the fuck?” after two days of hard-going-in work outs. I rode my bike about 15 miles on Monday. Then I went to the office and worked for five and half hours. Curriculum building. Meeting. Planning for one of my teaching residencies. (Yes, I have multiple.) And, yesterday, though I woke up with my legs shaking, literally shaking, I jumped on my blades and rode ten miles. Then I went to the office and worked for another five and a half hours. More curriculum building. Finalizing two unit plans, that is, twelve weeks of teaching. I did loads of research for memoir, a presentation for Latino History Month, prepping for journal submissions. Headed uptown. Took my nena to dance class. Went to the library and loaded up on more research. More reading. More writing plans. More prepping for the Writing Our Lives workshop. Went home. Homework with Minnie me. Prepped a quick meal. Prayers and bedtime stories. More writing and reading. Fell asleep with an essay collection on my chest. Woke up at 3am, the hour of the gods, with the stories sitting in/on my belly. It’s time to go back in and I’m scared.
I spent the summer working on voice. I’m still working on voice. I’ve been blogging and journaling and writing articles and speeches and presentations and sharing stories. My stories. I’m writing imagining how I’d tell these stories to my friends. A few friends. Loba pack: Philly Walls, Torrie Valentine, Cynthia Oka, Glendaliz Camacho, Ynanna Djehuty, Rhonda Elhosseiny. With them I can be my true self. All of the Vanessa that I am. Wild and crazy. Loud. Quick to break out in song and dance. Sometimes sad. Melancholy. Often fierce and positive and focused and hardworking and resolute. Focused on telling my stories the way I would tell them. Shutting out the voice that I created for acceptance. How I thought I should sound. Who I was told I should be. Because I internalized the idea, the false-fucked-up-fucking-idea, that I was not enough. With them, I know I am. They remind me. They hold me up. They…they are love.
All the work, all the grind, all the not giving up, all the worry and the fear and the questioning and the sitting with myself. All the wondering: What the fuck am I doing? Who the fuck do I think I am? Why should I write this? Why do I have to? All the anger at being called a “navel gazer.” The frustration. The: “shit, if only you knew how hard this is. If only you could understand that I didn’t choose this, it chose me. No, you’re right, I did choose this, and what of it? Why is this an assault to you? And why are you so damn worried about it?” All of it…and here I am, still writing it.
I shared this hurt with my poet sister Cynthia Oka. She shared a quote by Derek Walcott that goes something like, “Writers spend their entire lives writing about themselves.” Those words singed into me. Porque? Because one of the things I’ve been thinking about is silence. How we silence ourselves. How we are silenced. And how it hurts me particularly hard when writers, especially writers of color, try to silence each other. Try to silence me. Why does this hurt so bad? (Because even when it comes out as an angry-obscenity-strewn rant, it boils down to pain.) Because they, you, know damn well how it fucking stings to be silenced so why would you do that to someone else? We internalize this shit, that’s why. All of us. Me included. So, yeah…it hurts more.
I recently received an email from one of my Writing Our Lives students. She said that she hoped to one day be as brave as me. To write her stories raw and uncensored and all heart. I wondered if she knew how scared I am sometimes. How sometimes the fear keeps me up at night. Like last night, when I woke up at 3am, with the stories sitting in/on my belly, screaming to be put down.
I wonder if she knows that right now, as I write this, my heart is jumping in my chest. Jumping like she’s on a trampoline, trying to jump higher and higher with each leap. Trying to shoot herself into the heavens. On to the page. I wonder if she hears me when I tell her that I’m scared all the time. Yes, all the time. Every single time I sit with the stories, be it with my pen like I did the other day in the park when I rewrote the first story in my memoir, or on my computer at night when I’m in writing ritual, that every single time, I’m fuckin’ terrified. I’m scared of what I’m revealing. I’m scared of how it will be received. I’m scared of it being battered and questioned. I’m scared of the truth of it all. Of the reliving. The re-feeling. The exposure. Porque? Because the nature of the work is scary. But I do it, anyway. Because where there’s fear, there is something ripe for the telling.
That day Mom took her anger somewhere else. She’d been violent before but she used her hands. Or a belt. Or a coffee mug with hot coffee hurled at me. Or an extension cord. But that day, she held a knife. It was a small knife. Like a paring knife Millie used to peel my apples. An orange peeled into a long curled string that I carried around until it was hard and cracked. This knife was pointy. Pointy enough that I felt the point push into my skin.
“Atreveme que yo mató a esta desgracia’.”
I didn’t understand what was happening or why. I thought I’d done something wrong. I always did something wrong. Something to set mom off. To make her angry. To make her beat me.
I walked in front of the TV while she was watching a novela. I rolled my eyes. I fell. Scraped my knees. A hole in a new pair of pants. “Es que tu cree que yo soy rica.” Slap.
I learned early on that I was responsible for mom’s moods. It was all my fault. Always.
So that day when she dared Millie, it sounded like she was begging her, to stab me, I knew it was my fault. Again.
The cracked plastic of the couch pinched my legs and scratched my back, but I didn’t dare move. I barely breathed. I just stared at Millie, pleading with my eyes for her to help me. Save me.
“Déjala. ¿No ves lo que le estás haciendo? Por favor, déja la nena.”
But mom wouldn’t stop. She just moved the knife to another place so the next day when I climbed onto the toilet seat to stare at my reflection in the mirror of the medicine cabinet, there were red dots on the left side of my torso where mom had pushed the point of the knife in. Not hard enough to pierce skin. But hard enough for it to hurt. To terrify me. To believe that mom was going to kill me.
*excerpt from the first chapter of A Dim Capacity for Wings (2nd draft)
How can I write, relive these kind of memories and not be scared? Especially when they’re so vivid. I can close my eyes and remember my mother’s face. I didn’t know then that mom was having a psychotic break, but even at five (yes, I was only five), I knew that something was wrong with mommy.
She wasn’t seeing me. Not me, her daughter. “Mami, please.”
Her eyes glared through me.
That day I learned Millie couldn’t save me from my mom. No one could.
Years ago I told my mom she did this to me. We were fighting. Grappling each other with accusations and verbal assaults. She denied it. Said I was crazy. That she never did that. But she did. I remember it so clearly.
I wonder how she will react to how she’s depicted in these stories. What I learned about love from her.
This woman who hasn’t spoken to me in nine months. The same woman who will be in the same room with me but won’t look at me. Won’t talk to me other than to say “Dios te bendiga” through curled lips cuando le pido la bendición. As if I disgust her. The same one who won’t answer my calls but will send me a huge tub of my favorite Honduran sopa de frijoles. “Pick it up at titi’s house,” my brother will text. She won’t even text me.
This woman who I’m finally standing up to. Why? Because if anyone in the street treated me the way my mother does, we would have a fuckin’ problem. Because I’m finally demanding more. Because I know I deserve more. Because not having her in my life hurts, but having her in my life hurts more. My mother.
It takes so much of me to write these stories. To live this. To stand up for myself. Especially during this year of “arrancadas.” “Arrebatadas” as the glorious Gloria Anzaldúa put it so succinctly: “Cada arrebatada turns your world upside down and cracks the walls of your reality…you’re forced to live en la orilla—a razor-sharp edge that fragments you.”
I’ve been walking, existing on that orilla for long enough. I’m putting the fragments together, now. Through my stories. By living this life. With all its shit. All my shit. All my beauty and rot and rawness and faith. All of it. The full spectrum.
So, yes, I’m scared. Yes, the fear sometimes whips me. But I’m doing it anyway. And, yes, because. Porque I have to. Because I’m meant to. Because the only way out is in. Word.