*An essay a week in 2016*
Here’s the thing no one tells you about digging into memory and writing about the ghosts that haunt you: you will have to relive those moments and it will leave you reeling and you will carry that reeling in your chest and you won’t know what to do with it or yourself, and you will snap at people, the people you love most, who hold you when you’re heaving, and you won’t know what to do with that pain so you lash out and you can’t help yourself…in the moment, you will blame those people, say it is them, their nagging, their demands…and only later, when you’ve had time to calm fuck down will you see that it wasn’t them, it was you and your shit coming up…and you will be so fucking sorry but sorry doesn’t heal the pain you already caused…so what do you do with it? With yourself? You will have to figure that the fuck out and you will wonder why this healing journey is so fucking hard.
You will worry that they will leave. That you and your shit are too much to handle… There go those abandonment issues coming up again…
All of your stuff comes up. How do you hold yourself through it? How do you cope when the healing gets hard? What made you think that healing would be easy? The cliché walk in the park?… You tell your students that the only way out is in and you believe it when you say it, but it’s in these moments when you’re alone, holding your bleeding, pulsing heart in your hands, that you wonder why it has to be this way… why does it have to be so damn hard? Why isn’t the confrontation in the work/the writing enough? Why does it have to linger and make you cry? Why. The. Fuck? Why wasn’t it enough that you dared to go there again? Haven’t you cried and suffered enough? Why can’t that hand around your neck ease its grasp? Whose grip is it anyway? Is it yours? That vise grip that suffocates…
I’ve received several messages over the past few weeks from people, thanking me for the work I do. They tell me I’m brave for doing it. I confess that I don’t always feel brave. No, nix that, I rarely, if ever, feel brave while doing it. Most days I feel obsessed with the stories and haunted by them. Some days I feel worried and stressed about it. I’m terrified most of the time.
A poet I know, Angy, commented on an FB status about my Writing Our Lives Class, saying she’s been dying to take it but is “deathly afraid.” I chuckled. I wonder why people assume I’m not afraid of doing this work. That it doesn’t tax me to the point of tears and irritability (like it did earlier this week). Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t laughing at her. I was laughing at the idea that I can’t possibly be deathly afraid of this work because I do it. I responded: “I’m rarely unafraid when doing this work. My memoir terrifies me. I do it anyway…or maybe even because…”
I think fear is an indication that something is there, simmering below the surface just waiting to be explored. I’m imagining the magma bubbling below the surface of a volcano before it erupts sending a plume of gas hurtling into the air so ashes fall on the surrounding area for days.
This week was one of those hard writing weeks. I pushed through two chapters—one about our backyard when I was growing up and how it was my safe haven until I was molested there; and another about my Millie, the self-proclaimed butch who raised me. The confrontation with my past lingered and made me reel for days before I finally settled down. I gave myself yesterday off from the memoir and instead handled office work and fall prep work that reminds me that I need an assistant. I mean, I have lesson plans to do and syllabi to complete and bookkeeping and emails to send and respond to and grant and residency applications and…and… There’s always work to do, and no I’m not complaining. I know how blessed I am.
I go back to teaching in two weeks after two months off, a gift I gave myself so I could focus on the writing. I love the work I do. I absolutely love teaching but this time off was everything, and it reminded me of the life I’m working toward building where I write more than I teach and not the other way around.
I’ve written this essay over the course of a week that started off tough, but I must also acknowledge that even when it was hard, the universe continued to remind me of why this work is so necessary and why I have to keep doing it.
My upcoming nine week personal essay workshop, Writing Our Lives, is full and now has a waiting list. You have to understand, I started this class five years ago because I wanted to share what I know and love about autobiographical writing. There have been times when I’ve had only three students in the class and I still taught it with my entire heart. I extended the class this semester to nine weeks (from six) and upped the price by $200. When I first did it, I worried that people wouldn’t sign up, that they’d say it was too expensive and not the worth the cost. I had to remind myself of the importance of this work and the political environment that made me create this class. See, I created it for people of color and marginalized folks because we’ve been told for so long that our stories don’t matter, that our voices don’t matter, that we don’t matter, and our faces and histories are not reflected in the American literary canon. The only way to fight and push against that is to tell our stories. This is my way of helping that happen.
I also have been wanting to bring this class online because the demand is high and I want to step up my quest. I’ve been wracking my brain on how to do this, doing research, asking people, etc. but this week I was presented with an opportunity to do just that through an organization. More news on this later.
I also found out today that my essay “Millie’s Girl” which was published in the VONA Voices Anthology “Dismantle” is being taught this upcoming semester at Hawaii Pacific University. Ain’t that some deliciousness right there? No, it’s not the first time my work has been taught at the college level and beyond, pero that shit never gets old. Some time ago, I heard a student dropped a class at a university in California because she couldn’t handle what I said in the piece about religion and the bible and the intolerant views on homosexuality. My second Mom Millie died terrified of going to hell and there was nothing I could do to console her or undo the teachings that were ingrained in her in the campos of Lares where the Pentecostal ideologies are as deeply ingrained as the roots of the wild mango trees. So, no, I’m not sorry I wrote it and, no, I’m not sorry that pendeja dropped the class. I think its dope that she was so affected she couldn’t continue in the class and she will forever remember my story as a result. She and her beliefs were challenged and I’m proud my work did that.
Today, a writer whose work I admire greatly (you should read her essay “It Will Look Like Sunset”) reposted a status from exactly a year ago where she wrote about having left a horribly abusive marriage and her having to deal with having to co-parent her son with her abuser, and learning that her son, all of nine years old, knows the extent of the abuse and will have to live with that for the rest of his life. The status tore me wide open, as someone who grew up with abuse, who was abused, who has witnessed it so many times, who saw her sister beat and attacked her assailant, who is about to go into a chapter in my book called, “The Violence You Cannot Unwear” about how I became violent as a kid, mirroring what was being done to me and what I saw at home and in my neighborhood. I wrote to her immediately and thanked her for her audacity and relentless drive to live on and through and with it all. She confessed that she struggles with people judging her for what she writes and shares. And, of course, I get that too. You can’t imagine the shit I get for daring to write what I do. And I told her as much, and also agreed that some days it’s easier to tell the naysayers to fuck off, perhaps not using such colorful language but you get the point. I think of a line in a post my partner sent me about grief: “Scars are only ugly to people who can’t see.”
I had just left a therapy session that made me feel alive and supported. Afterwards, I made my way down to Union Square, walking slow and taking in the city and it’s wonder. I laughed at myself and how I sometimes I feel so exhausted with the frenetic energy of this city, my hometown, but today it’s energy gave me life. I stopped to watch the kids giggling at the clown making animals out of balloons. I looked for the lavender booth at the farmer’s market and shrugged when I found he wasn’t there. I put a tomato to my nose, closed my eyes and inhaled deep. It smelled like earth. I ate cheese from the Amish vendor and walked away without buying any. He still wished me a nice day. I smiled at people and took pictures as I thought about what I’d dug into in therapy.
We talked about how what has helped me survive these ghosts that haunt me is confronting them and writing about them and processing them in my work. My therapist agrees that this willingness to stare at my shit has made all the difference. Before we ended, he said, “You’re such an amazing mom. What you do for your daughter…” I teared up, of course. He knows I mother in resistance of how I was mothered and though most days I know I am doing a good job, I still struggle with owning that I am a good mom…and of course, that makes sense considering my history.
On this day twelve years ago, I went into labor after a really hard labor where I was on bedrest for two months after almost miscarrying, I retained so much water that my feet looking like two perniles, and I cried pretty much every day. My water broke as I was driving across the University Heights Bridge (also known as the 207 Bridge) from the Bronx to Manhattan. I was in my baby daddy’s white Acura Legend (he was my partner then) when my water broke on our way to a dinner at my grandmother’s house. I confess that at first I thought I had peed on myself. It wasn’t a gush like I’ve seen on TV, but more like a trickle. After 26 hours of back labor (the most painful kind because of the way the baby is positioned against your spine), they cut me open and went in to get her. She was screaming before they took her out. My baby girl. My greatest love. The one who has repeatedly saved my life and made me face my shit because I can’t have her carrying what I did. Tomorrow is her birthday and she’ll be with her dad for the first time ever. I won’t be able to wake her up at midnight the way I always have, smothering her with hugs and kisses, telling her how much I love her, thanking her for choosing me to be her mom, giving her bags of gifts and treats and all things she loves. Yes, I’m having all the feelings, but this much I know, I’d go through all of it again and again for her, my baby girl, Vasialys Solae.
A few years ago, at AWP 2013, three months before my brother died, I asked my mentors, “How do you take care of yourself during the work?” They all posited their various strategies but it’s Chris Abani’s response that I remember the most. He shook his head and said, “You can’t.” I was like, “What the fuck, Chris?” We laughed. Then he got serious and said that I will come up with ways to take care of myself, like the boxing I was doing at that time and my walks in the forest. But there will come a time when those things won’t work and I will have to reinvent my methods of self-care. “You will always have to reinvent those ways, Vanessa.”
I was reminded of that this week when I was struggling. I went for long walks in the park at night and spent time being gentle with myself. I remember Chris telling me that I have to remind myself of why I’m doing the work, over and over and over. “Redemption is easy,” he said. “It’s restoration that takes a life time.” Indeed…