I fell asleep and woke up thinking about my day yesterday. While on the D train to Coney Island with the 60 students and staff from the community organization in the El Barrio where I’ve been teaching writing to high school seniors for the past few weeks, I opened up tiny beautiful things (a collection of the Dear Sugar advice columns written by Cheryl Strayed—I love her!—for The Rumpus) and read Write Like A Motherfucker. It’s not the first time I read the article. In fact, I’ve read it several times over the past year or so, since I discovered Cheryl Strayed and her memoir Wild and her essay Heroin/e and pretty much everything she writes. But this was the first time I’ve read it while in the midst of writing like a motherfucker, and just an hour or so after being hired as the writing teacher for this community org in El Barrio for the 2013-2014 academic year for grades nine thru twelve. I was thinking about the blog I wrote just the other day about this life I’ve created for myself, my faith, how much I’ve been writing (like a motherfucker), my first novel, the 2nd and all the writing I’ve done to bring me here and now, from when I was just a kid in boarding school who had stopped trying to fit in, to the poems I wrote when I was seven, every journal entry, every book, every essay, every tear, every heartbreak, every night I didn’t spend on the street and every night I did; how they all brought me here, closer, so close to becoming the writer who can finish this memoir. A Dim Capacity for Wings.
[I was] thinking of only one thing. One thing that was actually two things pressed together…: how much I missed my mother and how the only way I could bear to live without her was to write a book. My book. The one I’d known was in me since way before I knew people like me could have books inside of them. The one I felt pulsing in my chest like a second heart, formless and unimaginable until my mother died, and there it was, the plot revealed, the story I couldn’t live without telling…
I wrote stories in feverish, intermittent bursts, believing they’d miraculously form a novel without my having to suffer too much over it. But I was wrong. The second heart inside me beat ever strong, but nothing miraculously became a book…I realized that if I truly wanted to write the story I had to tell, I would have to gather everything within me to make it happen. I would have to sit and think of only one thing longer and harder than I thought possible. I would have to suffer. By which I mean work.
When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journal. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentioned in that quote I wrote on my chalkboard [“The first product of self-knowledge is humility.”]. And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.
Do you know what that is, sweet pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight to the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears…I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.
I thought about my first book, Woman’s Cry, and how I cried when I wrote the last word. I shriveled out of my black leather desk chair onto the floor and cried. I cried loud and hard. It was the middle of the night. My daughter was sleeping next to her father in the bedroom. I cried like they weren’t there, and I called myself a writer. I got up, walked to the bathroom mirror, stared at myself and called myself a writer. “Vanessa, you’re a writer.” And I didn’t flinch or deny it or doubt it, because it was finally true. I’d written a book. My first book. What I needed to do to own it. To own that I was/am a writer.
It was the beginning of this life I’ve created. That was around this time eight years ago.
The thing is, I’m back at that place, where I have two hearts beating in my chest. And right now, I’m thinking of these two things that are pressed together in my chest: how much I miss my brother and how the only way I can bear to live without him is to write this book. My first memoir. A Dim Capacity for Wings. And I wasn’t sad when I saw that. When I acknowledged it on the train yesterday. I was quiet. I looked around the train and watched my students. The ones I’ve bonded with over these past few weeks as I’ve led them in writing their personal statements for the college applications. I watched as my daughter played numbers with my student Isabella, while my students Jason and Michael argued over who would win if a boxer and an MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter were put in a ring, and I saw, with immense clarity, that this is all part of the journey of this memoir. My brother’s death. My being on the train with my students. I saw more than ever before that this is a story I can’t live without telling.
I saw the grieving I will do in the writing, the grieving I’ve been doing while writing like a motherfucker, and for a moment, in that instant, it didn’t terrify me. It didn’t make me want to run. I sat there and stared at it, felt it, marveled at it. I owned it.
We spent a great, rainy day at Coney Island. 60 students and staff and my little girl. I did something I normally wouldn’t have done—go to Coney Island in the pouring rain to get on rides with kids who I danced with and giggled with and was silly with. “It was like going to a water park,” my daughter shrieked on the train ride home. Her being there made the day even better. I got to witness her around older kids, how fluid and comfortable and silly she is, always smiling, showing how wise and curious and strong and vulnerable she is. “She’s so your kid,” my students said more than once.
The day was made all the better by the offer I received just minutes before we headed out. An offer to teach writing to inner city kids. The reason I quit my job three years ago. To write and teach writing to these kids who look like me and are growing up in the rough neighborhoods I grew up in.
I wrote this week about the nature of teaching artist work. What a grind it is and how we’re so often looking for the next gig. It’s so rare to know in August where you’ll be teaching in the fall, much less the following spring, so to have nabbed this gig, to have earned it, is a blessing. It’s evidence of that faith I was writing about.
I went to see my mom afterward because she’s leaving to Puerto Rico for two weeks and though I saw her two days ago, I wanted to kiss her and hug her and tell her that I love her before she left. I’ve spent enough time not saying it so now I say it as often as I can—when I call her every day, yesterday when I crept up behind her while she was serving food, laced my arms around her waist and whispered it to her. “I love you mommy.”
And, yes, I wanted to share my joy over getting this gig, because it’s big for me and it’s important work and, yes, it’s stable money for the academic year.
When I first quit my job three years ago, I was terrified of telling Mom. She has such different dreams than I do. She grew up in the kind of poverty we only see in Save the Children commercials. We may have been poor but the fridge was always packed and we went to sleep with our bellies full. Mom knows what it is to sufrir hambre, to not know where her next meal was coming from or when, to choke on a tapeworm three feet long that her grandmother yanked out of her throat. That’s the kind of poverty mom knows, so when I quit my job in the middle of the greatest recession in eighty years, I was scared to tell this woman who never let us forget as kids that we had it good, that we were lucky to have gifts under the tree at Christmas. Shit, we were lucky to have a fucking tree because she never did.
We were in the street when I told her. I don’t remember where we were going but I remember we were outside. I planned it that way because if she flipped out and called me irresponsible and reckless and crazy, as I imagined she would (the scenario had been on loop in my head for weeks), I could run and get away from her so she wouldn’t fan the flames of self-doubt that were already raging (and still lick at me sometimes) beneath my skin.
But she didn’t flip out. And she didn’t yell. Her first words were, “Y Vasia?”
“Vasialys will fine. She has health insurance with her dad.”
Mom looked straight ahead. She said nothing for a long minute. “Bueno, si yo se algo de ti, when you say you’re gonna do something, you do it. Tu siempre haz sido asi.” That was her way of giving me her blessing.
And mom was right, there’s no stopping me when I put my mind to something. From leaving home at thirteen to never moving back with her since, when I want something, I go after it. Always.
So sharing this news of having been offered this job with the community organization was a way of showing her what I’ve done since I left my job. I wanted to share my joy. I wanted her to be proud. I wanted her to celebrate with me.
I told her while we were walking to the train. “Is it a real job?”
I stopped mid-step. “What does that mean, a real job? I work mom. I work a lot.”
“Vanessa, you’re 37, you need health insurance. You need to save money para retirarte.” And she went on a tirade about how I needed to stop being irresponsible and had to get a real job.
I sped away. I sped away fast. I left her angry and frustrated, telling me I was going to regret what I was doing. That one day I was going to regret that I didn’t listen. That I didn’t think about my future. That I didn’t plan.
I’ve been thinking about it since. What she said. How she said it. Anxious and worried, her brow furrowed, her finger pointing. Accusing.
I get it that mom’s worried. That she wants me to be safe. That in her mind a full-time job with benefits and a retirement plan offers her a safety she didn’t know as a child. I get it that in her mind this is a guarantee, though in my mind such guarantees don’t exist. That’s a farce. There are no guarantees.
Mom doesn’t get that I am taking this risk for my future. That I think about what she said all the time. I think about what can happen if I do get really sick like she reminded me twice yesterday, about how four years ago I was hospitalized for five days for an asthma exacerbation. I think about stability and what that means when I’m in the last week of a gig and I don’t know when I will start the next one, don’t know how I’m going to pay my rent or buy groceries. I think about how miserable I was when I did have a full-time job doing what I hated next to people who I didn’t really like and didn’t respect me or my work. The thing is that the idea of having to work in a cubicle, in an office again, is more awful and terrifying than the prospect of not being able to pay my rent, because, the thing is, I’ve always managed to over the past three years of living this life.
At moments like this, when my mother doesn’t support my moves, when she doesn’t get why I’m doing what I’m doing and can’t step out of her own pain and worry and regret to recognize my faith and strength, I remember a decision I made on the day I graduated from Columbia University 16 years ago. While still in my blue cap and gown with the blue Columbia crown emblazoned on the lapel, mom flipped out on me when I told her I wasn’t going to law school. “Yo sabia que no ibas a ser ni mierda con tu vida!” That day I promised myself that I was going to stop living for her. That I was going to create a life that I loved, that fulfilled me and made me proud. I didn’t do it right away. I had to fuck up, I had to fuck up a lot. I had to get fired and quit dozens of jobs. I had to suffer and get my heart broken and break my own heart. I had to write like a motherfucker and write my first book and my second and my third. And I had to write this blog post. And, fuck, my brother had to die for me to realize the importance of this work I’m doing and why I’m doing it and how I can’t live without telling this story: A Dim Capacity for Wings.
And so, though it’d be fucking great to have my mother’s blessing, her support on this life I’ve chosen, I decided long ago that I wouldn’t, couldn’t need it. And yesterday I was reminded why.
Wow. A lot of conflicts with your mother, and the lack of support was overwhelming. I appreciate how you can stand outside and see her and think of her own struggles, not that you excuse her for behavior, but you are cognizant of what she didn’t have and tried to ensure you had. I won’t say that I can relate to the lack of support or the insulting/degrading words hurled at you when you were trying to make a path for yourself. Because my mother couldn’t read or write, she couldn’t assist me with my schoolwork. Neither of my parents knew English either, so I (and probably you) had to learn English in our classes, fully immersed in it, without support from our parents. In addition, my father was physically abusive towards her, and towards my siblings and I when we cried. So I grew up seeing and hearing the incessant verbal and physical abuse, and would resort to reading whatever I had from school. We didn’t have books at home, not one. But I needed to escape the constant bombardment of abuse – and reading was the venue.
I knew my mother was extremely proud of me when I graduated from elementary school, middle school, and high school. Those were the only times she would reach out and hug me. The other time was at my wedding. Those times felt really good. The day before my an Economics final, and after getting a scholastic achievement award from Kingsborough Community College, I was informed that she was found dead in her apartment. I had to go in the next day to take my final in the midst of the emotional upheaval I was undergoing.
I know she would have been extremely proud to know that I completed my studies at CCNY, graduating Summa Cum Laude, and moving forward to Teachers College to pursue my Masters degree. I think that knowing that we came from a family where we relied on Welfare and Social Security benefits, where she couldn’t read nor write in any language, where abuse reigned up to the age of twelve, when my father was shot and killed, that pursuing a college education and making a decision to be a high school educator would have made her rejoice.
There are days when I think of her and wonder what would life have been like if she were alive . How would she respond to who I have become and am becoming. She would have been 77 this year. So, all of this is just my way of saying that I truly appreciate your genuine and generous spirit in being so transparent about your feelings towards your mother.
Finding new mothers has been my theme for the week. We never let go of our birth mothers, but finding new mothers means finding the people who can support our dream and vision. They can because they have done it. They confess the terror and joy and the struggle of moving in your dreams. People who have not walked that path can not support us on the path. Keep going PLL. Keep going…all the paths are hard, all the paths have turmoil and strife. it is better to be on the path towards where you want to go. I say this for you and for myself. Much love, JK
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