I’ve been feeling anxious. Anxious about these stories that have sat in me for so long, that have made their way into the pages of my memoir and into these blog posts. Stories that my mother is sharing, that I feel like I’m channeling through my brother. The stories that keep me up at night, that sit on my belly until I grab my computer or journal and start writing. Stories about my family, my mother’s life in Honduras, las desgracia that she says this country has been to her, the one mistake she says she regrets—being with a woman for 25+ years. Stories that my mother is now giving to me.
I wonder when I became the storyteller of my family. The one to chronicle what happened and how, to try to uncover the why. It happened so suddenly, or maybe not…Maybe it’s my brother’s death that’s making me stare at it closely, examine it the way an archeologist does a dinosaur bone, under a microscope, with gloves and a notebook to record the findings.
I remember when I told my mother years ago that I’m a writer. I hadn’t had my daughter yet. I had gone to visit her in the same apartment I grew up in. The one she still lives in. The one that sends me hurtling back to childhood as soon as I walk down the block, past the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner, past the back of the Chinese restaurant, the concrete of the sidewalk stained black by years of leaking garbage, the smell of trash always lingering in the air, especially intensely on a hot day. When I look at the tree down the block that was just a sapling when I was a kid and now towers past the row of three story buildings.
I don’t know how it came up. I can’t even remember how I said it. I can remember that we didn’t fight that day. I didn’t accuse of her of not loving me and she didn’t attack me for abandoning her when I left at 13 to make my way in the world. We just sat and ate and talked. Maybe I said, “Ma, I wanna write a book” or “Ma, I’m a writer.” Whatever it was I said made the corners of her mouth curl into a small smile, a knowing smile, one I now understand as a “Oh, you too” smile. She got up and dug into the bottom of the bookshelf that she’s had since I was a kid. (There were always books in the house. I come from a family of readers.) She took out a yellow steno pad, the long kind, and pushed it into my hands. Mom had started writing her story and she gave it to me to read. Written in Spanish, in mom’s fat cursive where she presses the pen down so hard, you can trace her letters on the pages that follow. Mom wrote about her life in Honduras, washing her clothes along el Rio Cangrejal, walking to different towns with Abuelita Tinita in search of food and money, the hunger they suffered. She wrote about the powdered milk they gave her at school, the bugs that floated in the yellowish liquid, how they drank it because it was the only guaranteed meal for the day. She wrote about the lombrices she threw up, the love of her grandmother, and how she never wanted to come to this country.
I can go back now to that day more than a decade ago and see that that’s when mom started giving me her stories. But I never imagined she’d share what she’s shared over the past few months. What she shared on that day in the beginning of June when she gave me permission to write her stories in the most anti-climactic way possible. She didn’t flip out on me for revealing my family’s secrets. She didn’t call me atrevida or traicionera. She didn’t go reeling back to her trauma. I didn’t reopen a wound. Mom showed me that her wounds have never scabbed over. She’s never healed. It’s now, through story, the many stories she’s been sharing that she’s beginning to heal…or at least try to.
Last night I wrote about my fears, huddled over my journal after a day of clearing out my space, throwing stuff out, getting rid of books and clothes and furniture and stuff, lots of stuff, because I’ve accumulated too much stuff and it’s time to desahogar, despojar, throw shit out. It’s an overwhelming project that felt endless yesterday so I had to remind myself repeatedly to take it little by little, day by day, to be gentle with myself and remember that each bit I do is progress. So, last night when I sat down with my journal (because I wanted to feel the connection of the pen to paper), I just wrote about what I was feeling, about my nervios and how anxious I’ve been feeling. I asked for help, for support, I told my brother to help me clear through. Writing is a form of prayer to me, most time. Minutes later I picked up a book I bought for a dollar on Saturday morning at the Farmers Market, “The Healing Art of Storytelling” by Richard Stone.
I’m not one to overlook the messages that the universe gifts, but there are some that are more blatant than others. As soon as I opened the book and started reading, I knew. I knew this book was sent to me and I was supposed to start reading it at the precise moment that I did.
“As I see it, I’m on an archeological journey, searching for traces of my past, threads of understanding, and shards of memory that might help me construct a panoramic picture of my life. The objects I see are not clay and stone, though, but are stories of my great-aunt Faye, her sister (my grandmother), my mother and even me. These stories will hopefully reveal much more than the ‘facts’ of my family—historical footnotes filled with dates and places. Maybe they will help me see more clearly the life forces and currents of meaning that preceded my entrance onto the scene. If I’m lucky, who I am will be richer, more complete, and expanded by the celebration of a long life that was well lived.”
“Through storytelling we can come to know who we are in new and unforeseen ways. We can also reveal to others what is deepest in our hearts, in the process, building bridges. The very act of sharing a story with another human being contradicts the extreme isolation that characterizes so many of our lives. As such, storytelling carries within it the seeds of community. And, because stories take time and patience, they serve as potent antidotes to a modern society’s preoccupation with technology and speed.
“When we recognize that our deepest aspirations cannot be satisfied by a culture that has reduced life’s meaning to a smorgasbord of the senses and material possessions, we must search for new sources of meaning, struggling with the same questions that challenged our ancestors. Fortunately, they have left behind a trail, faintly marked at times, but there all the same. Their stories can lead us to a deeper understanding of our origins and where we are going. Paula Underwood, a close friend and author with Native American roots, calls this the ‘pathness’ of our life. Without a past, we have no place to stand, no promontory from which to see, no clear direction for our future actions.
Our longing to find our place in this world is more than just a feeling. Only when we stumble onto the ‘pathness’ of our life do we come to understand that this feeling has been a beacon, not something to be avoided or snuffed out by absorption in the countless distractions around us.”
I’m writing this at the library on 124th across from Marcus Garvey Park. I’m writing this as I think about my memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and a reading I had on Saturday at La Casa Azul where I shared an excerpt of my memoir and the elegy I wrote for my brother, An Unfinished Elegy for My Superman. I’m thinking about how my students who went reacted to me today when I stepped into class, with applause and an eagerness to hear more. I’m thinking about the people who approached me afterward and shared how they were affected by what I shared. I’m thinking about how hard I am on myself and what a huge responsibility it is to write these stories for us, for my family, for my brother. I’m remembering what he said to me when I told him what I was writing, “Write it, sis. Maybe somebody will fuckin’ talk.” I’m thinking about my residency at VONA with David Mura and how I threw myself into my work as I grieved. I’m thinking about one of the readings David assigned that made me freeze and swallow the knot in my throat that screamed, “You do this! This is how you sabotage yourself, V. This is why you haven’t finished the book!”
When an uptight, hyper-critical, writer sits down to write, the unconscious mind throws up a sentence and the writer’s conscious mind wags its finger and goes, “Not good enough.” Perhaps the writer even crosses that sentence out or erases it, as if the unconscious mind were a bad dog who has soiled the unblemished carpet.
Then the unconscious mind sends up another sentence, and the conscious mind goes again, “Not good enough.”
Then, a third sentence: “Not good enough. A fourth sentence: “Not good enough.”
At a certain point the unconscious mind finally says, “Fuck you! I’m not sending up anything more. You don’t like what I’m doing, well, I’m going to stop working, I’m going on strike.”
Hence, writer’s block.
The key then is to be willing to accept whatever the unconscious mind throws up. In order to do this, you need to demote or push aside the conscious mind, and give more respect and attention to the unconscious. One way writers often overvalue the conscious mind is that we think the judgments of the conscious mind are infallible. Of course this is hardly the case. A writer’s opinion of his or her own work can be just as mistaken as someone else’s opinion.
Moreover, a writer can so overvalue the opinion of the conscious mind’s critical super-ego that he or she believes the super-ego can predict the future.
What do I mean by this?
When the writer starts out criticizing the first few sentences of the process, the judgment begins to arise that whatever the writer is going to write is going to be no good. The writing and the writer are guilty of bad writing after the first few shreds of evidence.
But in truth the writer doesn’t know what’s going to be on the second page of the writing, nor on the third page, or the fourth. And since she doesn’t know this, she can’t possibly judge or predict the quality of that writing.
But you never get to the second or third or fourth page if you criticize and censor the first page, if you never get past the first page…
[W]riting is an act of acceptance. Or rather it requires acceptance–of yourself, of who you are at this moment, of your unconscious. You should approach it as would a Zen master, living in the moment rather than worrying about the future or the results of your activity. You must realize that nothing you do now will make you smarter, more knowledgeable, more talented, sexier, more beautiful, more charismatic. You are simply who you are, and this is the self that will write at this moment, so you ought to make the best of this.
I didn’t know I was going to write this when I entered the library. I knew I had to come to here. I knew I had to sit and write. I didn’t know what I was going to write. I knew that I had to though, to release this heaviness in my chest, to tear up as I see my brother’s smile in my mind’s eye as I type, knowing that this is what he would want me to do. Today I didn’t listen to that voice that screams, demands, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” Today I just wrote. Today I paid attention. Today I surrendered and the result was this blog post. Admitting that I’m scared and that I’m doing it, writing these stories, anyway. Understanding that I’m supposed to feel this, that this sense of urgency and nervios are signs that these stories matter, that I matter, that we matter.
Today I understand what David Mura said to me during our final one on one, “You aren’t just writing this book, Vanessa. You are becoming the writer who can finish it.” Here’s to the journey and the finishing. Here’s to it all.