*An essay every Friday in 2016*
In a speech at Brown University, Viola Davis brought the audience to their feet. “I want to say that my name is Viola Davis, and I am a hero.” The audience went wild. “When I say ‘hero,’ I don’t mean someone with a cape or a lasso… I mean someone who has overcome adversity and weathered the storms.”
In my junior year of boarding school, one of my RDs (a man who was getting his MBA at Harvard at the time) called me confrontational. I cringed and dug deeper into silence. Later that year, he was riding me about an AP US History project I later got an A on. I stared into the RDs dark eyes and said, “Why are you being confrontational.” There was no question to it. He visibly flinched.
I’ve been called confrontational before. I’ve been told I’m inflexible and don’t know how to keep my mouth shut. Here’s the thing, for the first thirteen years of my life, I had no voice. Whenever I talked back, I got slapped, my hair yanked to the point of whiplash, hatred spit into my face. So when I finally found my voice, I grabbed onto it and didn’t let go. So, yes, I have a big mouth. Yes, I always have something to say. Yes, I talk back. Always.
I get that not everyone will appreciate or understand that. People will try to silence me. They will tell me that I need to calm down. That I need to pick my battles. That I don’t always need to react. That sometimes it’s best I smile and swallow the bile. I can’t do that. I won’t. I’m willing to pay the price. It took me too long and too much to gather the ovaries to be this outspoken and fierce with it. Silence has done so much damage to me and the people I love. Yes, it comes down to silence. It’s cool if you don’t get that. I’m cool with being the misfit. La que no se calla. The one who will never learn. “Your mouth will be your downfall,” my mother would say. “Esa boca te va joder,” was actually what she said. I live in resistance of that every single day.
In his TED Talk “On Humanity” Chris Abani says: “You know, you can steel your heart against any kind of trouble, any kind of horror. But the simple act of kindness from a complete stranger can unstitch you.”
I am hard on the outside. Someone told me recently that I’m like Brillo. I scour. I cringed but I owned it. I can be abrasive. It’s how I’ve steeled myself from pain. It’s a form of self-protection. I make no excuses for it, but I will say that if you know me, the heart of me, if I’ve let you in or you’ve taken one of my classes or you’ve read my work, you know that’s only a piece of me. A small piece…a way to protect the gooey insides that I’m so afraid the world will see because I don’t trust what they’ll do with it…after all, look at what my mother did.
I rarely think about what happens when people read my work. I don’t think about how it will affect them or what they’ll say. I don’t imagine reactions while I’m writing. Later is another story, but while I’m in it, I don’t…
This past weekend, at the spiritual center, one of the pastors who’s been asking my partner for me and now I know reads my work, pulled me into a hug. I hadn’t been there in over a month. I’m adept at isolating myself. She held me soft and tight and whispered, “I’m not letting go.” Then she told me I’m not alone anymore and I’m not in those moments anymore…back there when…the moments I’ve been writing about in these weekly essays. She told me that now I have her and the spiritual center and Katia. She said, “Don’t push love away.” My tears were fat and quiet and made my insides shake.
The kindness of strangers…
I’ve had people reach out to me from across the country and the world. They thank me for writing. They say they felt alone in their pain until they read my work. They tell me they too are unmothered or were hurt in these deep ways that they still carry. They say I give them faith.
I raised the money to go to Tin House in under eight hours, including a huge donation from one of my favorite writers, Roxane Gay.
This morning I heard from another writer from across the country whose work saved me many times when I was in the dark well of grief. She found me because I had cited her work in an essay and her friend in Uganda (!!!) saw it and sent it to her. We became Facebook friends and have followed one another since. We’ve talked about how difficult it is to be a mom and a writer, and how long term residencies are out of the question for me because I just can’t leave baby girl like that. I told her that this spring and summer I’m planning DIY residencies where I will rent an Air BNB and go away for long weekends (when baby girl is with her dad) to sit and be with my stories and work on this book. Today she told me that she’s sending me money to help me make that happen. “It’s in the mail,” she wrote. I was still in bed when I read the message. I wept quietly into my pillow.
This afternoon I got a message from someone in Argentina who says she reads my blog. She asked me to please keep writing. She sent me a poem. I choked up when I watched the video.
The kindness of strangers…
I don’t think about what people will say but I’m still shocked when they do say something. Maybe I shouldn’t be but if I start worrying about reactions, where will my writing go?
Some people will read my work and love me. Others, not so much…
I’m a loud mouth. I know I am. When I have something to say, I say it, and I’m not always soft with how I say it. I don’t think about the repercussions.
Years ago, when I worked in health management, the last gig in corporate I had before I left that shit forever, the head nurse (a case worker) started asking questions about my writing. I was a baby writer then, still trying to figure out my niche, but I was already drawn to autobiographical writing. I had a blog (before it was called a blog) on a now defunct site called OpenDiary.com where I posted essay-type pieces about my life. I recall catching the woman (a heavy set, in mid-life Italiana who was far too concerned with what I was doing with my life) reading over my shoulder while I was writing at my desk one day. When I turned around, she said, “You’re not supposed to be writing at work.” I reminded her I was on my lunch break. Then she said something about being careful with what I write, “Remember, you represent this company.” I was twenty five, living like a twenty something year old in New York, building up the courage to write my stories. I was in pain and I didn’t know what to do with it so writing was my only channel. I hadn’t found a writing community and I hadn’t started my journey to healing. I hadn’t found therapy or VONA, and I was already averse to the idea of censoring myself or considering the organization (any organization or company) I was working for before posting anything. I remember looking at that woman with her mean streak, and telling her without flinching, “I’m not representing anyone but myself.” Then I closed out the page and shut my journal.
“What you do outside here represents this company,” she said.
“Bullshit,” I responded without blinking. “You don’t have to worry about anything I do outside of here unless I kill someone.” I smirked.
She clutched her pearls. “You’ll care if you want to keep your job.”
I smirked again. “Well, you’re not my boss anyway so…”
“Thank God for that.”
“Agreed.” She huffed and marched off, away from my cubicle.
She was later fired.
I’ve been confronted with this issue before, especially now with social media. People have told me to be “smart” or “careful” with what I post. I’ve been told not to get into arguments with people on line.
Here’s the thing: I know I can be better with how I go about things sometimes. I know sometimes my emotions get the best of me. I have my triggers. We all do. Still, I won’t censor myself or tame my fierce. I already told you I’m willing to pay the price. None of us is perfect. We don’t have to be…
Therapist: “Meredith, you got really good at being alone, but something terrible happened to you and they were all there. And they still are.”
Meredith: “Are you saying I can’t be alone anymore?”
Therapist: “No, I think you can. I just don’t think you want to be.”
Grey’s Anatomy Episode: All I Want Is You
I watched this episode last weekend in my partner’s apartment. She isn’t a Grey’s Anatomy watcher but she came into the room just as this scene came on. She leaned on the door frame and watched me while I sniffled. “Hmmm,” she said knowingly. We’d been talking about how I’ve isolated myself since I got back from Tin House and have been digesting the discovery that this memoir is about being unmothered. I didn’t realize these weekly essays would pull so much out of me. I didn’t realize I’d been isolating myself. I’ve gotten so good at being alone…and, yes, it’s true, I don’t want to be, but some habits are so hard to break.
I started therapy today. I didn’t realize I’d write about it until right now that I’m in front of this screen. It was an intake appointment where you address why you’re there, why you’re seeking therapy and what you hope to get out of it.
I choked up a few times. I warned the therapist, a gay white guy with soft eyes: “Get used to this. I’m a crier.” We both laughed. He gasped a few times as I told him my history. Said, “I’m so sorry,” when I told him about my brother’s death. “You have no relationship with your mother?” he whispered, his face crestfallen, when I told him about my mother. I appreciated that. I don’t want a therapist that’s so sterile and detached, he doesn’t react to the shit I share.
“It sounds like you’ve been through a lot.” I choked up again. Sometimes I can’t help but think I’m buggin’. I’m overreacting and being overly sensitive. “That’s your mother’s voice in your head.” He swallowed his lips and nodded when he said it. Then he sighed. It was a sad sigh. An “oh my god, I’m so sorry,” sigh. That’s when I decided that I wanted to work with him. Because he has compassion. Because he said what I needed to hear: “that’s your mother’s voice…”
The kindness of strangers…
Today, as I sit here and take in this week and all these epiphanies, I stare at the signs spirit is sending me and I feel more sure of myself than I have in a while. I think of Viola Davis and her definition of a hero. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt like a hero but I certainly know what it is to struggle and to overcome. I know what it feels like to know that you’ve survived some real shit and everything else is miniscule in comparison. I know that I’m ready to heal and share my life. I’m taking steps in my self-care that feel promising. I’m proud of myself right now. I feel like a bad ass. I’m singing Ice Cube’s Today Was a Good Day in my head, imagining myself in a top down green Impala, driving down Bushwick Avenue. Silly, maybe, but it makes me giggle and I’ve earned that giggle. Maybe I am a hero, after all.