*An essay a week in 2016*
We all want to be seen. Every single one of us. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Absolutely nothing.
There is probably no better or more reliable measure of whether a woman has spent time in ugly duckling status at some point or all throughout her life than her inability to digest a sincere compliment. Although it could be a matter of modesty, or could be attributed to shyness—although too many serious wounds are carelessly written off as “nothing but shyness”—more often a compliment is stuttered around because it sets up an automatic and unpleasant dialogue in the woman’s mind.
If you say how lovely she is, or how beautiful her art is, or compliment anything else her soul took part in, inspired, or suffused, something in her mind says she is undeserving and you, the complimentor are an idiot for thinking such a thing to begin with. Rather than understand that the beauty of her soul shines through when she is being herself, the woman changes the subject and effectively snatches nourishment away from the soul-self, which thrives on being acknowledged.
I must admit, I sometimes find it useful in my practice to delineate the various typologies of personality as cats and hens and ducks and swans and so forth. If warranted, I might ask my client to assume for a moment that she is a swan who does not realize it. Assume also for a moment that she has been brought up by or is currently surrounded by ducks.
There is nothing wrong with ducks, I assure them, or with swans. But ducks are ducks and swans are swans. Sometimes to make the point I have to move to other animals metaphors. I like to use mice. What if you were raised by the mice people? But what if you’re, say a swan. Swans and mice hate each other’s food for the most part. They each think the other smells funny. They are not interested in spending time together, and if they did, one would be constantly harassing the other.
But what if you, being a swan, had to pretend you were a mouse? What if you had to pretend to be gray and furry and tiny? What if you had no long snaky tail to carry in the air on tail-carrying day? What if whenever you walked you tried to walk like a mouse, but you waddled instead? What if you tried to talk like a mouse, but instead out came a honk every time? Wouldn’t you be the most miserable creature in the world?
The answer is an unequivocal yes. So why, if this is all so and too true, do women keep trying to bend and fold themselves into shapes that are not theirs? I must say, from years of clinical observation of this problem, that most of the time it is not because of deep-seated masochism or a malignant dedication to self-destruction or anything of that nature. More often it is because the woman simply doesn’t know any better. She is unmothered. ~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
Do you know what you deserve? When beautiful things happen to you, can you accept them as something you deserve? Can you accept a compliment? Do your insides cringe? What tape plays in your head? Is it the same one? The one that sounds strangely like your mother? Is it the one that tells you you ain’t shit and you ain’t gonna be shit and you are undeserving and unlovable and not enough, not good enough, not hard working enough, not dedicated enough? Do you hear the words you were called as a child—ordinaria and retardada, tu no sirves pa’ nada, inútil?
Can you see pictures of yourself and see your fly? Or do you pick at your flaws? Your never been flat again belly since you got that cesarean twelve years ago. The pounds you’ve gained since you fell in love. The yellowing of your teeth. Your chubby hands that your sister made fun of, saying it was a sign of your retardedness.
At what point will you see yourself?
One day you meet a writer, Annette Estévez, who gushes about your work and its effect on her. She is fidgeting as she tells you. She breathes deep and says repeatedly that she’s so nervous and she’s wanted to tell you this for so long. She says, “You’re my plum tree.” She’s referring to that plum tree you write about, the one from your childhood in Bushwick, Brooklyn. When she says it, you feel the knot climb into your throat. You want to accept this amazing compliment, one of the best you’ve received on your work. You want to believe her. You try… You try so hard.
She shares the invite to your feature at Capicú. She instructs her friends to do themselves the favor of checking out your blog. She writes: “Her work is forever saving me, forever splitting me open. Her healing an endless gift to my own. She is Bushwick, she is resilience, she is moonglow magic, she is raw honesty and vulnerability, she is both heart and grit. She is all this magic and flyness y te lo dice como e’ unapologetically.” She quotes one of your Relentless Files essays:
I call it saving my own life. I’ve been doing it since I started climbing that plum tree in my backyard in Bushwick to tell myself stories. I was imagining a different life, one that I’m still creating.
In this life, I believe I am worthy of all the good and beautiful things.
In this life, when my daughter tells me I’m her best friend and she’s so glad she chose me to be her mom, I believe her.
In this life, when my girlfriend stares at me across the table, I stare back. I don’t shrink away. I let her envelop me with all her love.
In this life, there is a door. I’ve walked through it and the view on the other side takes my breath.
There are fields of wildflowers. A hawk soars overhead. Hummingbirds whiz and dip. Wolf cubs frolic, biting eachother’s ears, yipping and tousling while mama wolf looks on. I am there, face up to the sun. I am smiling. I am glowing. I am free. ~Relentless Files — Week 9
I teared up when I read this post. It feels amazing to be seen, my work appreciated. To know that I inspire… I want to believe all of it.
I want to not feel the fizzle behind my nose when my therapist tells me I’m a good parent. When he reminds me that I am not my mother. That I mother in resistance. That this is wholesome love. That I am the mother to my daughter that I wish I had…still wish I had…
On Friday I featured at Capicú, a poetry showcase I’ve been going to since 2010. I am still overwhelmed by the love in that room. Friends came from as far as Massachusetts and Maryland and Philadelphia, all the boroughs, from uptown and downtown and crosstown. A former student I taught nine years ago, who I met when she was just 15 years old, came through from Florida. She said, “You’re living the life you said you would.”
My Writing Our Lives students were in there deep. I met people who’ve followed me for years and some who were just introduced to my work. After a summer of writing and sitting with my stories and getting half of my memoir done, it feels amazing to be seen and appreciated and asked to share excerpts from this book I’ve been working on for so long and finally feel ready to finish.
Yesterday I was on a panel during the NYC Latina Writers Group 10th Anniversary Celebration. I was asked to give advice on the writing life, how to lean into and overcome fear, what risks I’ve taken in my work and why, what it takes to live this life.
Me. I was asked to share my experiences like I’m a seasoned writer. An expert. Successful.
Wikipedia defines impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) as: a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.”
I heard about John Henryism for the first time in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.
…you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term — John Henryism — people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.
The idea is that we achieve ourselves to the point of illness and even to death sometimes in an attempt to counter the many times we are told, directly and subliminally, that we are not enough, we are inferior, ordinaria… I think about how my being unmothered has contributed to this achieving thing I do. How I grind and work and work and don’t give myself credit for what I accomplish, don’t take time to acknowledge what I’ve achieved, how hard I’ve strived to create this life for myself and my daughter.
Then I’m in a room where I’m the featured writer and people are coming up to me to tell me they are excited to hear me read, that they’ve followed my work for years. And my students show up in droves, even a student I haven’t seen since she graduated high school eight years ago, and she’s there to tell me I’ve been one of the biggest influences of her life. And my partner’s brother is there to see me perform for the first time and when I get off the mic and I’m shaking, he gives me a big hug and tells me how amazing I did. And people are coming up to me to shake my hand and hug me and tell me how much they’re moved and that I made them cry and they can’t wait to read my book, to feel it in their hands. And they don’t let me walk out though I want to, need to feel the sky over my head, want to look at the Hunter moon growing full, but they won’t let me… It’s the universe, I know. It’s the universe holding up the mirror, insisting, demanding that I look into it and see myself, the affect I have on people, how my work is moving people… how much I’m seen and appreciated.
I wonder why it’s so hard for me to acknowledge myself. To love myself enough to say: Look at what you’ve done. Be proud. Own it. You did that. You.
I see that door. I know it’s time to walk through it… I’m working on getting there.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been obsessed with Bomba Estéreo’s latest album, Amanecer. This song in particular, Algo Está Cambiando, especially…
Algo está cambiando en mi, creciendo
Algo está cambiando en mi, lo siento
Me voy a buscar una luz pa iluminar
Todos estos momentos
Dejando todo lo que tenga que dejar
Y seguir creciendo…
Algo está cambiando en mi, puedo verlo
Algo está cambiando en ti, algo bueno
Me voy a buscar un sonido pa cantar
Todo este silencio
Cambiando todo lo que tenga que cambiar
Y seguir creciendo…
This morning, the Center for Women Writers shared the video of my reading at Capicú. I snapped a screen shot of it. I haven’t been able to watch the videos of that night. I’ve tried, but my insides cringe and I shift uncomfortably until I can’t take it anymore, close out the window and busy myself with something else.
I’m now sitting in my room, on my bed, leaning on the red wall. I’m staring at the “I ❤ Brooklyn” graffiti piece opposite me. I’m remembering the girl I was all those years ago up in that plum tree who told herself stories of a different life. Stories like the one I am living now, that I thought could only exist in my imagination. I am looking at that girl, holding her, telling her: You did this, mama. You created this life for yourself. You started doing it way back then. Look at you now. It’s time for you to start taking this in and giving yourself the props you deserve. It’s time you see yourself for the wonderful woman and mother and writer and teacher that you are. Come, walk with me to the door. Let’s enter…together.