I’ve been obsessed with lists throughout this journey. Especially writers lists of writing rules. What writers do to live the writing life. To sustain it. To keep it together.
I’ve been thinking a lot about inspiration. Where we find it and how. Colson Whitehead’s number two rule sticks out for me: “Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you.”
So, it’s not surprising that last night, after crashing out at 9pm, I woke up at 1am with an idea. Inspired somewhat by the New York Times’ 12 for 12 and the countless lists I’ve read over the past three years of memoir madness. I let the universe lean in, pushed past the “How the fuck are you gonna come up with 37 things you know” insecurity, and just started writing.
So, just two days into 37, here’s what I know. Or, at least, 37 things that I definitely know:
- I am obsessive. When I do something, I go all in. I don’t know how not to go hard. I grind. I grind hard. It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve had to do to take care of myself along the way. So, it makes sense that when I rollerblade, I go for miles, like rollerblade to Brooklyn from uptown Manhattan kind of hard. Like the fact that until very recently I’d only read memoirs and personal narratives while working on this memoir in earnest over the past, say, two and half years. Perhaps a few newspaper articles here and there (not too much because this culture of fear is depressing and while I understand current events are important, I cringe when I see newspaper headlines that only speak of the horror going on in the world. When are we going to celebrate the joy that happens daily?), but in large part, all I’ve read is memoirs. Books, essays, stories. It was the other day that I finally read Junot’s This is How You Lose Her, and I got it because 1) I was told (and it’s true) that it reads like a memoir, and 2) he’s the one Mat Johnson (who I took a residency with this past June at VONA) told me to look to when doing the voice work I needed to do (and did, obsessively, all summer and early fall). And now I’m reading my sister Cynthia Dewi Oka’s poetry collection, Nomad of Salt and Hard Water, because, well, it’s dope and she’s dope and the book (and she) are walking with me through this final stretch of A Dim Capacity for Wings.
- Love never dies. Junot was on point when he wrote, “The half life of love is forever.” What do I mean? Once you love someone, you will always love them. Sure, the love will shift. You may not get the heart palpitations and sweaty palms you once got when you saw him, but you’ll always love him. The other day, I got a message from my first love. I hadn’t heard from him in a while so seeing the message made me smile. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want him back. It’s not an issue of unresolved emotions. No, it’s that we shared a big, important piece of eachother’s lives. He introduced me to the magic (and, yes, heartbreak) of love. He’s the one I’d write pages and pages of letters to when I was in boarding school. He’s the one who I let see my insides when I was too scared and too in pain to show anyone my vulnerability. That kind of intensity, that kind of love, doesn’t disappear. It sits in you. It flowers. It changes. It just is.
- Silence is internalized and most of the time we don’t know we’re doing it. We don’t say things because we don’t want to hurt people, because we’re afraid of being rejected, of being called crazy or sentimental. We’re afraid of being dismissed. I’ve done this so many times. I realized recently I was still doing it, so when the truth came out in floodgates, it was hard to handle. To digest. To process. Me desahogue. I felt like I’d removed a damn from my throat. It was an unplugging of sorts. I let it all out. Pow! I won’t apologize for that. I will say that I’m on a mission of stopping that shit. Of no longer silencing myself and no longer being silenced. It’s a process. I remind myself that truth doesn’t have to cut people at the knees. That is, I don’t need to destroy you with the truth, even if it’s a hard truth to swallow and accept. It’s all about how you say something, right?
- I am softer than I let people see. If you know me, if you know my heart, if you’ve read my work, you know this.
- I’m also harder than people realize. Than even I realize sometimes. My life has demanded a resilience that’s constantly challenged, constantly pushed farther and farther. When you do this kind of work, this kind of digging into your past, you are giving the universe permission to challenge you, to make you stare at the mirror, to make you see your rot. It’s rattling. And necessary. That’s all there is to it.
- I don’t love easy but when I do love, I love hard. Refer to #1 on this list. I did say I don’t know how to not go hard, right? That applies to my life and approach to things in general.
- I have a high tolerance but when I say that’s it, that’s it. I’m out and there’s no getting me to look back. I did it for the first time when I was 13. I left my mother’s house and never moved back. I’ve done this is my relationships, and I’m not just talking about the romantic kind. It’s who I am. Again, I don’t know how not to go hard.
- I can’t stand liars but I understand why some lies are necessary. If the truth will break you, sometimes it’s best to keep it to myself. I do this out of love. With honey on my tongue.
- I will never stop being annoyed by people who call me a kid, baby, etc. These people are usually older than me and assume that my age makes me less smart, less competent, less able, less wise, less worldly, and a whole slew of lesses. Listen, I know I’m not an old lady. I know I have much to learn. But I also know that I’m not a child and I’ve learned a lot over these 24 years (yes, 24. I left home at 13, remember?) of being on my own. And much of my smarts doesn’t come from books, it comes from experience. From living. So, please, do us both a favor and keep that shit to yourself. Ok? Ok. Moving on.
- I do not consider myself a patient person but sometimes my patience surprises me. Take for example a situation I encountered just yesterday. I teach an after-school program in a high school in Harlem, and the program requires that we work in the art room. The teacher isn’t particularly nice about it. She’s obviously territorial (as we all are) and does not like having to share her space. I’ve let her live. I’ve worked with her; let her have loud ass conversations with people while I’m trying to teach my class. Let her watch videos at loud volumes. Let her stomp around like a pouting six year old, but yesterday, I had enough. When she dragged one of the stools across the length of the classroom. When she asked us to lift our feet so she could sweep under our desks. Enough was enough. My patience was gone. At this point, the safe space I was trying to establish for my students was challenged. I was pissed and I wasn’t having it anymore. The solution? We’re being moved to another room as of next week. I didn’t flip out. I went to the powers that be and made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that I could not continue to work with this woman’s hostile energy in my space. I’m not there for her. I’m there for the students. So, that’s that.
- If you hear me say, “Let me introduce you to Vanessa Mártir,” clear the room. I’m ready to flip and it’s not gonna be nice. So, yeah, there’s that side of me. I call her my Brooklyn. She resides in my back pocket and she is fierce. Proceed with caution.
- I am not my mother. But, though it’s frightening to admit this, I know I am like her in many ways. *deep breath
- I believe in second chances, even third chances at times, but everything has an expiration date and some things I just can’t forgive. At least not yet.
- Most people are unaware of themselves and will wild out when called on their shit. Sometimes, rule #8 applies, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes people need to be called out especially if your shit is imposing on me and my life and the people I love. That’s when you may see the side of me I referred to in number 11. And that’s where I recommend you get out of my way. All of five feet, two inches, I’m okay with being the one voice of dissent. I don’t let people bully me into silence. Not anymore. Again, refer to “what I know” number #3.
- I love teaching and I’m really good at it. I know this is part of my personal legend. Word.
- The law of attraction is true. A few days after the exhibit I did with Meryl Meisler, Defying Devastation: Bushwick in the 80s, was in the New York Times, I was cleaning up my house and happened to stare at my vision board. My eyes went to the top where months before I’d posted: Vanessa Martir, writer, alongside the logo of the paper. There was no escaping it. I’d put energy into that happening. I cried.
- I need therapy. Simple as that.
- Although I have a visceral reaction to all things institutionalized religion (if you want me to listen to you, never ever preach scripture to me, ever), I do admire and even envy that surety people have in their faith. Not the GAY=God abhors you kind of faith. But the constant solace and unwavering belief in God’s plan kind of faith. I’m finding that in this journey. It’s a process.
- I was never a quiet girl. My mouth has gotten me into so much trouble over the years. But I notice that my mouth has gotten much bigger. And I’ve allowed silence to speak for me in some occasions because when an outspoken woman doesn’t say shit, her silence is fuckin’ deafening. Yeah.
- Silence can be just as powerful when used consciously. Take for example Lauryn Hill’s reaction to Wyclef showing his ass and trying to call her out. In response to people questioning her about her not having addressed his accusations, Lauryn said: “And notice, out of all the people who talk talk talk, who’s the silent one. There’s a lot of chat, but me….And you know why? Let me tell you why I don’t chat back. Because I know that my brothers and my sisters are often times pawns in a bigger scheme so when they, under pressure, attack me, I love them still. It’s called the high road. Try taking it sometimes…You know I know I’m not crazy, that’s why I can use the word so freely. Crazy like a fox? Ahead of the curve. People don’t like people that’s ahead of the curve but unfortunately that’s not my problem.” Booyah!
- Cada cabeza es un mundo. We all exist in our heads sometimes. Projecting our shit. Thinking about what people say about us, think about us, share about us. We see the world through our own set of lenses, shaped and shaded by our experiences, our triumphs and our failures. I remind myself that what people think about me is none of my business. I am blessed to have a loba pack familia that carries me, blesses me, knows me. It’s their opinion that matters. Punto.
- Community means many things but it does not mean letting people walk all over you. It does not mean blind support. It does not mean that I can’t and won’t call you out on your shit. Nah. Nope. It does not mean that I have to be your friend when my gut tells me you’re a hater, don’t like me, don’t believe in me, etc. I’ve done that enough times in my life to know better. Community means standing with the people I love, who I believe in and who believe in me. Simple.
- People will put their shit on you. Give it right back. It is theirs. Don’t carry it.
by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.
- Being humble to the point of self-deprecation is tired. We’ve been taught to be ashamed of our power. That we have to rein in our egos for fear of it taking us over. I understand that modesty is a good thing but never to the point that you downplay your work and your role in the world. I’m learning this again and again. My mind goes back to an angel at VONA who when I confessed that I thought my daughter is amazing in spite of me, not because of me, sat in front of me, cupped my face and said, “How can you expect her to see her light if you don’t see yours?” Well, holy heaven! Yeah. Wow!
- Sometimes I have trouble seeing my own light. I’ve internalized those abusive messages I heard as kid: retardada, ordinaria, dejas la inteligencia en la escuela, eres bruta, no sirves para nada, etc. Even if I know none of it is true, as my sister Philly Walls said, “You called me stupid so many times, I think it’s my name.” That kind of shit takes time to undo. That’s why it’s important to have people, community, love around you that helps reflect it back, because as the ubuntu philosophy dictates: I can’t see my humanity unless you reflect it back. Let your familia hold you, people. It makes the stab of living cut less deep.
- I am inspired by people who doubt me. Tell me I won’t and watch me. No, really, watch me.
- I trust the process. Even when it shakes me up and makes me feel crazy. Makes me cry and question myself, I know that there is a reason for it all. I recently had an unraveling. Like, seriously, I came apart. I understand now that that needed to happen. I am doing some shamanic work. I am confronting a mirror that most people run away from. I am digging and reliving. That takes a lot of energy. And that energy needs somewhere to go. And so I unraveled to come back together stronger and more sure of myself. Praise to the denouements, yo!
- I have to take better care of myself. I know that. It’s why my nose flares when people try to lecture me about it. “You have to take care of yourself, Vanessa.” Gah! I do not set my alarm between 3 and 4am. I just wake up. It’s always been that way with me. When I’m working on a project, that’s the time I wake up. The hour of the Gods. Witches hour. Whatever you name it, that’s when the muse leans in extra hard. She sits on my belly. Her and her pile of stories, and says, “Write.” I barely sleep when I’m in the marrow of story. I barely eat. But I’m productive as a mothafucka. It’s my process. Still, I’m aware of things that I can do to take better care of myself. Like therapy (See #17) and doing spontaneous things for myself just because. Like how I took myself to the movies on my birthday. I had just dropped my sister Cynthia off at the bus, looked across the street, and thought, “Hey, that looks cute.” So, I crossed over, walked in, bought myself a ticket, and watched a movie. By myself. It was glorious. 🙂
- I can be intimidating. And? Now that we know that, can we move on?
- Some things, some people, you will never forget. Ever. It’s a blessing and it’s a curse. It is what it is.
- I don’t believe I’m doing anything people can’t do. It takes so much living and hurting and grinding and giving to live this life. To have this dim capacity for wings. The thing is, you have to have the work ethic, the ovaries, the fuck that, Imma do it, to go all in. Do you? Word. So, go.
- The bravest thing I’ve ever done is let myself be vulnerable. I re-learn this every single day.
- I am ready to leave New York City for a spell. This city will always be home but I’m ready to experience another life.
- People can be real full of shit. I know it comes from pain. I try to remind myself of that when I run into these people. But it doesn’t mean I won’t call them out on it when the time arrives. (Refer to #s 14 and 22.) And you will never be part of loba pack. Ever.
- You don’t stop needing a village because you grow up. In fact I think you need it more as an adult. Surround yourself with love. It will see you through.
- I’m finishing this memoir. I’m in the final stretch. I’ve stopped saying that this is the second draft because the truth is it’s the umpteenth draft. Before I sat down and wrote a first draft, I’d written these stories, talked about them at length, sat and processed them, so many times. So when I spilled them onto the page, barely slept from January to April of this year, I didn’t go back to look at what I’d written. I just wrote. The stories morphed. Coalesced. Became a book. Now I’m fleshing them out. Giving them teeth and bone. Editing them for the final time. This memoir is getting done. Period.
- I am building a life, not just writing a book. Other plans include an MFA, a poetry collection, Millie’s memoir, essays, teaching, and the list goes on and on and on. Yeah, I ain’t done yet. Not even close. Watch me.