*An essay a week in 2016*
I realized today that I am halfway through this essay a week challenge—essay 26 of 52. I’m in Miami for the seventeenth annual VONA Writing Workshops. My eighth consecutive VONA. On Friday was the 3rd anniversary of my brother’s death. I was here when I got the call at 5:30 on the morning of June 24th, 2013. A few hours earlier I had been at the orientation for my residency with David Mura, and a few hours later was the first day of the weeklong residency. I stayed because my brother sent me.
“You have to go write your stories, sis.”
He died not 72 hours after saying this…
It hit me the day before on the 23rd as I was adding images to my canvas. (Every writer is given a large sheet of paper that they are to fill with words and/or images or whatever they want to reflect who they are, how they exist in the world and what they’ve experienced at VONA.) I was thinking about all the VONAs I’ve been to. How many canvases I’ve filled over the years. How different they’ve all been.
VONA is a time warp. You lose track of the date and the day. I knew the anniversary was Friday but I was so busy helping to run the program that it hadn’t really sunk in…until Thursday when I felt the grief swoop in as I worked on my canvas and I remembered that three years ago on that day my brother was still alive and I hadn’t yet experienced this grief that has made me such a different woman. I walked to the back of the lounge (aka VONA Central) and put my face in my hands. It’s been a while since I’ve sobbed like that.
Three years. Just yesterday…and yet so long ago.
The following morning I woke with that familiar sadness that has made me curl up in my bed and stay there. I knew my brother wouldn’t want that so after breakfast, I took an uber to Bill Baggs Cape State Park in Key Biscayne. It was exactly what I needed. Yemaya held me in my grief.
I pondered something I heard a few weeks ago that has been on loop in my head: you can’t always believe what your mind tells you. I am not my mind, I am my spirit. It was spirit that led me to the beach.
I sat there, alone for the first time in I don’t know how long. My thoughts swirled like they always do, in crashing waves like the ocean that lapped the shore in front of me. I looked at the sea and wondered: Which thoughts can I believe? Why y’all gotta be so treacherous and treasonous and sketchy? I thought about my brother and our relationship and how much I miss him; and how I know I wouldn’t be the woman I am today had he not died…how I’d give that all up to have him back because this evolution is dope but my brother’s love carried.
I got stuck out there on Key Biscayne because it turns out reception is horrible in that strip. I couldn’t get a signal to get an Uber and every call I made failed. Instead of freaking out, I took myself out to lunch at the Lighthouse Café. I wrote and sipped on fresh mango juice and ate shrimp. I just let myself be. I was on that beach for two hours longer than I’d planned. A little sunburned and starting to get anxious, I finally got in contact with my dear friend Nívea who arranged to have another staff member go get me.
What am I telling you? That I know without a doubt that it was my brother who gifted me that time to sit with myself. Every year he shows up on the anniversary. The first year it was in the form of a hummingbird flying urgently by me in the Bay after days of not seeing one. Then a young woman walked toward me with a Superman t-shirt to match the one I was wearing in honor of my bro, my Superman. Last year he moved a cup on the table where I was having dinner with my bruja sis Lizz ar a Thai restaurant near campus. He did it twice for good measure. And when I questioned if it was him, he had a cup fall out of my hand as if to say, “How dare you doubt that I would come to you?” This year it was time he gifted me. Time to sit with myself and my thoughts and my feelings. Time to remember him and who we were. Time to remember love…
Today it’s Sunday, 6/26, and we are prepping for the second week of VONA. Today is Pride Weekend and my timeline is full of declarations of pride including an acquaintance who revealed that one of her twin daughters is queer. I was just a girl myself when I discovered I was attracted to girls. They say that all girls kiss girls when we’re girls but I knew it was more than that for me. I liked it in the way I didn’t like kissing boys. I liked how soft girls were. How we understood one another in ways boys didn’t get. Now that I’m in a relationship with a woman three decades later, this is all still true.
On Saturday night VONA had a party on the rooftop of a hotel on South Beach. It was a gorgeous view to say the least. The sky. The sunset. The beach. The people. I went outside with my boy and as we talked, a car rolled by in a red Banshee, two inches from the ground, the muscled black driver was hanging half outside his window the way people do on Ocean Drive. This scene is all about the flexed muscles and the tight abs and flowy dresses, bikinis, guayaberas and linen. He blasted a song I can’t pretend to know but it was all bass and gritty lyrics as is present day rap music. He stopped in traffic and a woman in a bikini ran seemingly out of nowhere and started twerking in front of his car while her crew cheered her on. We joined as we watched her flex and be her gorgeous, unapologetic self. The driver vroomed his engine and we cheered louder. It was glorious. It was Miami. It brought me back…
I remember the woman I was in my 20s who was still running away from the writing life, who didn’t want responsibility and was still deep in her pain. That young woman just wanted to love and be loved but kept repeating the cycle she endured with her mother…that “love me please love me” shit I only recently (as in three years ago) saw for what it was. I partied a lot in those days and Miami was the center of a lot of my partying. Ocean Drive and Collins and Washington. Clubs and bars and hotel pools and rooms. I made a lot of memories. I have tons of stories. And I have zero regrets.
Many people here knew that the anniversary of my brother’s death was Friday. I was talking about it with my sister-friend and fellow staff member Philly Walls. We were talking about the guilt that lingers because we are still here. She shared a story of being on the Seine in Paris in her twenties. Her first day there, she sat by the river and was consumed by a grief that shocked her. A woman Philly described as an African gypsy (I imagine her as full bosomed and wrapped in thick, colorful prints that mirror the lush landscape of home) said to her: “some people need to die to learn what they have to learn and some people need to go to Paris…”
I think of my brother and the path he led, the nightlife and the drugs and the pain that he tried to numb, and I think of the life I’ve chosen, the one I live with such fervor and faith and fierceness. He lived that life and I live this one where I learn from being unmothered and being a writer and a teacher and a mother and partner and a woman who holds space for so many people and is often overwhelmed by the love their reflect back…because my mind still lies to me sometimes and tells me that I don’t deserve that love though my spirit knows I do. I do. Carajo, I do.
After the party at The Betsy, after walking the strip and having a drink at Wet Willie’s on Ocean Drive, a few of us walked onto the beach. My boy Anthony spit a poem to Yemaya that gave me chills. He’s a gifted poet who has only gotten better over the years that I’ve known him. His work these days is particularly raw and vulnerable, and I’m certain he will only continue to flourish and shine. It’s gorgeous to witness his evolution.
Philly followed with a prayer that brought us all to our knees. She thanked the many whose remnants lie at the bottom of the ocean, those hundreds of thousands who sacrificed their lives, albeit unwillingly, in the Middle Passage “so I can be a poet,” she said. I felt my heart throb in my ears.
Earlier, a VONA sister shared the Iroquois Seven Generation Principle, which states that things you learn today, will influence seven generations in the future and heal the seven generations that came before you. I think about the studies I’ve read that say there is evidence that trauma is carried in your genes… Think of the magnitude of that: you are carrying traumas of past generations that manifest themselves in this life. But, what some people don’t see that the seven generation principle reminds me of, is that if we carry the trauma, we also carry the ability to heal that trauma…the wisdom learned from those wounds.
I think of these stories I’m writing and that viejita that visited me in my dreams years ago. I remember the cavernous wrinkles on her face that upon closer inspection I discovered were canyons of tears. She acknowledged that it was a lot that they were asking of me, but said, “you’re the only one who can…” It is up to me to heal the seven generations before me and the seven that will come. I imagine my great great great great granddaughter. I imagine her life. I imagine she will be mothered and loved and will not have to endure this trauma the women in my family have had to carry for generations. I hear the viejita tell me of how las abusaron, how they were raped and beaten and enslaved. I see them under a man’s foot and I write with more fervor and ferocity. I write for them, my ancestors and for my daughter and the girls that will come from her womb. It is a huge responsibility to carry but I’m the only one who can do it… I’m the only one who wants to.
I’m sitting at my desk in my room at UM. The cinderblock walls and box shape makes the room feel like a prison cell. In front of me are pictures of my daughter, my brother, my Millie and my father along with some art prints of women in all their glory, all put up in an effort to resist the penitentiary feel of this room. I draped colorful scarves on the windows, chair, bed and mirror. My dresses hang in the open closet and to the right of me are the roses my sister-friend Andrea aka Philly gave me on the anniversary of my brother’s death. It is the first day of Week 2 of VONA. I’ve been here for nine days and while I am exhausted in many ways, I also feel full in a way that I can’t really put into words.
Coming to VONA reminds me of why I do the work that I do. Why I write and teach and hold space for writers.
I’ve met some incredible people over these few days and reconnected with people I haven’t seen in months and even years. I am remembering Paula, a poet who read a poem at the open mic last Monday that started “Hood love is good love” and ended with the line, “Fuck this poem.”
I am thinking of my brother from another mother Anthony who spit a poem in the arboretum on Wednesday that started “I love Anthony Morales.” It was the most vulnerable piece I’ve heard him spit yet and I’ve known him for more than 15 years. It was heart space and marrow and tears…so many tears. He later shared that it’s modeled around Ocean Veoung’s Some day I’ll love Ocean Veoung.
I am thinking about the magic that is made in this space over just a few days, how much I’ve grown as a woman and mother and writer and human being in this space. I’m thinking of the writers who were here last week. The stories they shared. The looks of utter disbelief on that last day during the student reading. They couldn’t believe it was over. They couldn’t believe the work they’d done, what they’d learned about themselves and their work. I’m thinking of their hugs and tears and words of gratitude.
This work is hard. It’s exhausting. And it’s fulfilling in a way nothing is. VONA is where I’m supposed to be. It is home.
So I’m going to take a chapter out of Paula’s poem and say: “VONA love is good love…and fuck this essay for not completely capturing what I’m trying to say…and bless this essay for the journey of trying.” Word.