*An essay every Friday in 2016*
(I’ve been having a hard time posting these on Friday because well, life but, shit, once a week is the ultimate goal and I’m still meeting it so…*shrugs*)
In Create Dangerously, Edwidge Danticat writes: “All artists, writers among them, have several stories—one might call them creation myths—that haunt and obsess them.” What creation myths haunt you and your work?
This is the question I posed to Toni Morrison last year when I went to her talk at the 92nd Street Y. I’ve asked this same question of numerous writers, famous and not. On panels, in classrooms and during one on one conversations.
“It’s not about what you can remember but about what you can’t forget…”
I’ve said these words dozens of times during speeches and talks about autobiographical writing and why it is we write our stories, what it is we write about over and over, in different genres and iterations.
What haunts me and my work?
Stories of rape and sexual abuse. What women and girls in my family have suffered at the hands of men. This intergenerational trauma I carry. How that’s affected the women in my family, how they carry that, the women and mothers they’ve become as a result. Breaking cycles. The hope that I can and am breaking cycles in my own living and mothering.
I’ve seen them in my dreams—the women and girls in my family. They sit on the floor of a hut, staring up at me. One of them I can’t look at directly. She looks so much like my daughter it makes my throat clench.
What I’m realizing is that what haunts me isn’t so much that I’m unmothered but why I am unmothered. What happened to my mother that made her this way? What happened to the women in my family that hardened them and made them unable to mother their children?
Paul Garner from Beloved told Sethe – “You your own best thing.” Sometimes your best darkness, too. The problem is all the ways you can betray yourself. ~Fifty Ways to Feed a Fire by Ola Faleti
There is an obsession with certainty that both perplexes and draws me in. The academic nerd in me, the I want and need to know everything side, gets it. That want comes from shame. From the times I was made to feel like I wasn’t smart enough or good enough—Ivy League “because of affirmative action, for sure”; assumed I was custodial staff so many times because I’m a woman of color; passed a plate and a wine glass at the Bloomberg Christmas Party at the Museum of Natural History and told, “get me a refill.” The pendejo didn’t even look me in the eye when he said it. I shoved it into his chest and told him, “Get that shit yourself.” I mean, how could a brown woman possibly be there to dance and party with them, the rich, the privileged, the white?
There’s a side of me that’s surfacing, the one who communes with spirit, who is seeking communion with mystery, is less worried or concerned with certainty. This woman knows that life force, the eternal is in the questioning and then listening for the answers, knowing the answers may come in ways no one but you gets. In the shiver of the trees or the woodpecker who comes close and stares, pecking at the branch, then back to stare at you. The hummingbird who visits your dreams.
“The beliefs and ghosts of the past haunt the present as it stretches into the future. The eerie, shifting image of Shadow appears where there is light and fire and a storyteller to bring it to life.” ~Marcia Brown, Shadow
When I was a kid of six and seven and eight, I was obsessed with scary movies. Friday the 13th. Children of the Corn. I can hear that movie’s damn song in my head. It still makes me tremble, and, to this day, I think the name Malachai is evil.
I loved Tales of the Dark Side (I can hear that eerie song too!) and Tales from the Crypt. But it was The Exorcist that damaged me in a way I have yet to come back from. This story wasn’t made up though I knew it must have been embellished for movie-making purposes. But people were possessed by demons and evil spirits, or at least that’s what I heard whispered in the Pentecostal church Millie took us to sometimes. And Millie’s family, her mother Doña Carmen and brothers, the pastors Damian and Tito too, spoke of it. What of the spirits I saw? The ones that kept me up at night, that I’d see out of the corner of my eye but when I whipped around to look, were no longer there.
I became terrified after The Exorcist and swore off scary movies. (To this day I don’t watch them.) For a long time after watching it, I barely slept at night. I’d watch for the sun to rise from the bottom bunk and only when I saw dawn peek through the backyard window of our railroad style apartment, would I let my eyes close. I’m till scared of the dark, though I’m now facing that fear head on.
What is it I’m afraid of? Why is it that darkness and shadow have such a bad rep? What is it they represent? Have we not seen the most heinous cruelties occur in broad daylight?
There is a draw to darkness I am keen to explore. I’m still fuckin scared, make no mistake, but as I’ve been saying for years now: Fear is not the problem. It’s how you react to it that should be the focus. You can let fear paralyze you or catalyze you. You choose. Me? I’m tired of being paralyzed. I’m ready to take it on already.
What does it mean to be haunted?
– (of a place) frequented by a ghost : “It looks like a classic haunted house”
– Having or showing signs of mental anguish or torment: “the hollow cheeks, the haunted eyes”
Urban Dictionary defines it as: The state of chronic depression and a gloom created by a cataclysmic personal event.
Of course since I’ve been writing and mulling about what haunts and what it means to be haunted, the word is appearing everywhere around me.
I opened the chapbook PTSD and the first few lines read: “The poems of Elisabet Velasquez are not easy to read. They stand haunted by memories of past relationships, mental illness, and generational trauma, all against the backdrop of a childhood in 1980’s Brooklyn.”
On Thursday I received PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers Issue 19: Hauntings. I’ve just started digging into the magic that exists therein.
Laura Esquivel in “Contacto con Fantasmas” writes: “To prepare any recipe is to come into contact with the ghosts of our ancestors. The ghosts of seeds, stones, utensils, people and animals. Within the alchemical laboratory known as the kitchen, history becomes the voice of hundreds—or maybe millions—of beings that become one in order to relive the human experience. Inside the kitchen, voices run together, becoming one collective breath of life that seeks to affirm its existence through contact with an individual being who dares to interact with a past full of murmurs and souls.” Can the same not be said of writing these stories?
Eleanor Wilner in “The Love of What is Not” writes: “What fascinates me is the rich way that language embeds experience and history, and how a word can slowly shift from depicting habitual easiness to its opposite, a habitual uneasiness. Because given its roots and past usage, haunting begins with dwelling, tracing back through several language layers to a distant relation to the proto-Germanic word for ‘home.’ Whether or not that etymology is partly to surmise, it seems evident that the word’s early use denoted a place habitually visited or dwelled in, as a woodland pond was called the haunt of dragonflies. That usage survives, but the negative use has become ascendant.” And later: “I do not for a moment mean this as another American mouthing the psychobabble of ‘move on,’ ‘turn the page,’ when faced with real loss. For grief is not that kind of thing at all; it is not yearning after what never happened, what never was, nor after the lost, unconscious grace of an idealized infancy… Always with haunting is the unresolved, the undone, the not-yet-born, the unlived, the only imaginary. I have been talking about the love of what is not, not the love of what is, or the love of what most certainly was.”
Joy Harjo in “On the Back of the Rememberer” says: “Women forget the pain of childbirth. All of us forget the moment of impact of painful accidents or incidents in our lives so we can go on, and not be haunted by the memory of shock and pain. Amnesia, then, is a helper when we are faced with pain beyond the ability to carry it. Where does such memory go? Does it wait in a queue ready to emerge, to be seen, heard, and known, because all things want to be acknowledged, to be remembered?” Does it get passed on for generations until a storyteller is born with the purpose of revealing (and thus releasing) the trauma?
The plum tree. I am haunted by that tree in the backyard of the building I grew up in on Palmetto Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn. That tree taught me to scramble and pull myself up. To climb. To dream. It was up in its branches that I started telling myself stories. It was there that I watched my mothered longingly as she tended to her garden. I was up there when my abuser called me to his window, luring me with the promise of a sweet—the almond nougat Millie would buy for me at the carnivals that visited the neighborhood in the summer.
A few years ago I suddenly developed an allergy to almonds shortly after I first wrote that story of being molested.
There’s a belief system that says we choose our parents, or rather, our souls do. I imagine my spirit roaming bedrooms while my parents were mid-copulation. Mom is lying there, taking it. She told me a few years ago that she could never enjoy relaciones because of what happened to her when she was a girl of 16. The rape that produced my brother.
I wonder why I chose them. What is it I’m supposed to learn in this life from coming into the world through them, my parents? That haunts me—this want to know. I don’t believe I was put here to suffer being unmothered without there being a reason for it. I’m convinced I was being prepared for this and more—this writing and teaching and mothering I do. What else is there? More. I’m sure of it.
If it’s true that “haunting” can be traced back to a proto-Germanic word for home, “a place habitually visited or dwelled in,” then is this haunting a longing to return to home, to our higher selves before the trauma dug its claws in to do its damage?
My brother would have been 44 tomorrow, May 16th. I will forever be haunted by his memory and how much he loved and believed in me. I hear him sometimes, when I stop to think about and consider this life I’ve be created for myself. “You’re doing it sis,” he says. I see his wide smile, and feel a pinch in my chest. God, I miss him.
If it’s true that we pick our parents, my brother chose to come into this world via a rape. Why? What was it he was supposed to learn or grow into? What did he fail to accomplish here on this plane?
In college I took an Indo-Tibetan Buddhism class with Robert Thurman, Uma Thurman’s father. I was fascinated by the Buddhist idea that you return to this earth over and over until you get it right and learn what you’re supposed to learn and evolve into the being you were meant to. This is perhaps a gross simplification, but you get the picture, right?
I read somewhere that Voldemort (of the Harry Potter series) is incapable of love because he was conceived under the spell of a love potion, so he wasn’t conceived in real love. I thought about my brother and the heinous act through which he was conceived. My brother who taught me what love could look like—flawed but unwavering and relentless. He who could never overcome the ghost that haunted him but who in death, has helped me confront mine. I wonder: is that enough to redeem him? Can we fulfill our purpose by helping others realize theirs?
In “Stranger in the Village,” James Baldwin wrote: “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” I think about the studies I’ve read that prove that trauma can be carried in your genes, so you literally carry the suffering of your forebears in your DNA. But, if you carry their pain, you also carry their wisdom, yes? And so, are we really meant to learn from it rather than be burdened and haunted by it? Can we use them to end these cycles of violence and trauma that hold us in vise grips?
I’m thinking about my friend and mentor Chris Abani’s essay “Abigail and My Becoming” where he writes: “Ghosts leave their vestigial traces all over your work. Once they have decided to haunt you, that is. These ectoplasmic moments litter your work for years. They are both the veil and the revelation, the thing that leads you to the cusp of the transformational.”
Can these ghosts that have haunted me since I was a child finally be leading me to a transformation that has been eluding me for decades? We shall see…but I have a feeling I’m onto something here…