Grist for the mill

The other day, I read a meme that claimed to hold the seven secrets for a happy life, the first being: “Let go of the past.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this or the same idea in another iteration: move on, stop letting your past stop you/hurt you/disempower you, take your life back from your past hurts, etc., etc., etc. I won’t lie, my reaction to these is pretty visceral—a curl of the lip, a middle finger to the screen, a mumbled “shut the fuck up” and a quick scroll down.

But we memoir writers are used to this shit. See, accusations are hurled at us like daggers on the regular—the “you’re narcissistic, you’re self-absorbed, why can’t you/don’t you just get over it.” Or like someone said to me in such nice terms, “it’s like you enjoy sitting in the shit and playing with it.” Yeah, that’s what it is, right? It’s that I want to torture myself. I like reliving all the shit that happened to me and my family. I’m a glutton for punishment. I’m masochistic. Yeah, that’s what it is, right? No. In fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

I write about the past to free myself from it. That may sound absurd to some people, but it doesn’t to me. See, I know what silence can do to a family, because I saw what it did to mine. I’ve seen firsthand how pretending to be okay and pretending that nothing happened, that you weren’t raped, that you didn’t get pregnant, that you didn’t conceive a child, that your son didn’t find out at the age of thirteen that he was a result of that rape…That pretending is what really killed my brother. It wasn’t the drugs. It wasn’t the HIV. It was the silence. The dangerous behavior, the drug abuse, the irresponsible sex were just byproducts of the pain caused by that silence.

And that silence caused my mother to have post traumatic stress disorder and psychotic breaks when I was a kid.

And that silence made my mother into a cruel woman who couldn’t love me the way I needed to be loved so that I’m still, at 37, trying to put the pieces of my heart together.

And that silence made my mother so abusive, so cold, that at the tender age of 13, I left to make my way out in the world and I never moved back, because no matter how hard it got (and let me tell you, it was fucking hard), I knew that becoming a woman on my own, through trial and error, was safer than going back home.

So, it’s not that I don’t want to let the past go, it’s that the past doesn’t want to let go of me.

It’s not that I remember. It’s that I can’t forget.

Ann Lamott “found a snarky comment by an above-it-all person who said, in effect, When is Lamott going to get OVER all this stuff? Over the sadness in the world, for instance, and of my own past, and all the tiny tiny tiny thoughts about my butt, and how I accidentally forgot to work out after I had a child, 24 years ago, but how I am going to get right on it, probably next Monday, right after lunch…” ~Ann Lamott, FB post

How many times have we told someone to just get over it? A heartbreak. A death. A job loss.

I’m a 37 year old woman and watching a man lift his little girl in the air and cradle her just made me catch my breath. My eyes welled, man.

And as I’m editing this at the café, I sneezed and a man said, “Salud.” His little girl, in her squeaky, three year old voice said, “Dad, what does salud mean? Don’t you mean bless you?” I look over and she’s staring up at her dad with those saucer-size, brown eyes and I know that he is the most important man in her world. He is all things masculine and protection and daddy. And my heart breaks because I am reminded that I will never know what that’s like—the love of a father. This is why I write…because that kind of empty doesn’t go away.

When I think about my motivating force behind writing these stories, I always circle back to my daughter. My beautiful nine year old daughter. The one who just last night I had to remind that even when mommy scolds you, mommy loves you. Mommy loves you so much that even though I had to work last night, I had to write, I had to read, I had to plan for my classes, even though I knew I had to build curriculums and write syllabi and I knew it would be terribly uncomfortable for me, I let her sleep with me. So what she poked me in the ribs twice and kicked me hard with her long, dancer legs at least three times. So what my back is killing me today because I had to huddle in the corner of my bed because my minnie sleeps spread eagle and she hogs the covers, too. So what. That’s what mommies do. And mommies also do their best to protect their kids from the pain they’ve experienced. The pain that still stabs at them relentlessly. The pain I’m trying to free myself and her from by writing these stories.

There’s something about the expression on my face that I can’t quite describe but can definitely feel. Right in the middle of my heart. Like a clenched fist. (circa 1983, Bushwick, Brooklyn, age 7)
There’s something about the expression on my face that I can’t quite describe but can definitely feel. Right in the middle of my heart. Like a clenched fist. (circa 1983, Bushwick, Brooklyn, age 7)

I know what silence did to my family. I know what it did to me. I know that I will forever have to live with the fact that I didn’t have much of a childhood. That I had to leave my home and everything I knew and loved because I had to save myself. That to this day, I don’t really know what safe means, though I’ve tried to give myself “safety” since I left home all those years ago. That safety that is still so elusive…But my kid will not experience that, or at least I will die trying to keep her from experiencing that pain. She will not carry the silences that I had to carry. The silences that I’m breaking now, knowing that my family just might disown me…

Stories, truth, compassion, are the medicine…The new book, Stitches, asks the question, What if we never “get over” certain deaths, or our childhoods. What if the idea that we should have by now, or will, is a great palace lie? What if we’re not supposed to? What if it takes a lifetime to forgive certain people, whom I am too polite to mention by name here, although let’s say hypothetically, parental units, and the very worst boyfriends? What if it takes most of your life to become friends with your own heart?

How can we hold our heads up high when people, like my dear reader, and people in our family, roll their eyes at our being seekers, of restoration, self-knowledge, for—oh God, I am just going to blurt this out—Truth? ~Ann Lamott, FB post

I go back to Chris Abani’s words, as I have so many times over the past few months, “Redemption is easy, Vanessa. It’s restoration that takes a lifetime.” But, I can’t lie, I worry about that. I worry that there is no getting over this. I look at my mom and how she still carries the horror of her rape all these years later. I look at how she trembles and cries when she talks about. I look at how that shit destroyed my brother. And I worry. I worry that I will never be able to forgive my mother for how much she hurt me. I worry that I won’t ever get over not having had a father. I worry that I will never ever ever recover from losing my brother, my Superman, the one person who made sure to remind me repeatedly, “I’m proud of you, sis”… I worry that I won’t be able to forgive myself for all the dumb shit I’ve done in my desperate want to be loved and my eternal search for safety. I worry that I will never become friends with my own heart.

But you know what, even with these worries, the only thing that makes me feel like I’m getting closer to the healing, to that place of certainty, to that safe place, is writing my stories. It’s in the writing that it makes sense, if only for a little while. It’s in the writing that I can laugh and wail and pull my hair and find solace. It’s in the writing that I can grieve and figure things out. That I can make connections and have these incredible epiphanies that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. And, that’s the thing, you don’t really realize you’re healing, until the universe presents you with opportunities to witness your healing firsthand. So, you can sit and talk with your mother and she can revert back to her cruel behavior and you won’t lash out at her. Yes, it will hurt you but you won’t react with the same callousness. Instead, you’ll tell yourself that she’s in pain and you let her be, and you’ll go home and hold yourself and remind yourself that that’s her shit, not yours.

Here’s what I always want to say when people suggest that they have left (what they call) their baggage behind—old wounds sadness and anger. I want to say, “Oh, how nice. But could I possibly get your wife’s phone number, and maybe one or two of your kids’, and ask what it is like to live with you? Behind closed doors?”

Because we know that hurt people hurt people. If you were badly hurt along the way, and thought you could put it in an old suitcase and stuff it in the garage—well, my friends and I have dated you. And it was great, in the first trimester, and then? Yikes. Very scary, very destructive. In some cases, deadly. They were hurt, and became successful and charming to disguise or forget this, and now they hurt people, or are unable to show up for life. Life is scary. ~Ann Lamott, FB post

I know I would never have come to these epiphanies had I not finally stopped running from memoir. I had to go into my life, into my stories, into my mother’s life and her stories and my brother’s life and his stories, I had to go into the muck of it all to make sense of everything, to free myself of the claws of the past, finger by fucking finger. Or at least to begin to. I have no false delusions. I understand this will take time. I don’t expect to be healed by tomorrow. I may never completely heal, but I’m so fucking grateful for the healing this writing has gifted. It takes bravery to face this shit. Bravery to look in the mirror and face my own demons. Bravery to write these stories with the truth I am writing them. Bravery to reveal these secrets that my family has held because of shame, because of terror, because of fear, because of so much. But it’s fucking worth it. Today, I know that. Today, I own that shit. Today, I understand.

Ram Dass put “baggage” another way, nearly forty years ago. He called it “grist for the mill.” The sorrow, the losses, the anger, the messes, the infinite confusion, the whole gestalt of a life lived, is grist for the mill—it is the way home, the medicine for healing, immediacy and presence here, on this sometimes absurd funny blue marble. ~Ann Lamott, FB post


  1. I’m always excited when I get a notification that you posted on your blog. This one is no different. I’m sharing on my FB page.

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