*An essay a week in 2016*
This past Saturday, we studied the role of “place” in our writing in my Writing Our Lives Class. I’ve been thinking so much about place as I get ready to leave the apartment and neighborhood I’ve lived in for the past seven years. My apartment is piled with boxes, stacks of books waiting to be packed, paperwork I am dreading sieving through.
I had my writers read one of my go-to craft essays, Dorothy Allison’s “Place”:
You think the most important thing is that confident voice of that “I” narrator who, let’s be clear is really you when you were twenty-two, and they didn’t treat you right, didn’t fuck you right, didn’t love you right—Momma, first lover, Daddy, I don’t care who it was. But I want the story to burn me. I want the page to crisp my fingers.
You were in the room with him when he said no, he did not want you, and you walked out of the room and it felt as if you were bleeding into your own belly. You went down the stairs, out into the night, and you smelled—what did you smell? Was there the distinct odor of spilled beer on the steps? Were you thinking about how when your daddy left that was all that you could smell on the front steps after he was gone? Is it torn-up weeds that you smell? Somebody was sitting on those steps earlier and she was crying, and she didn’t have anything else so she reached down and pulled up the grass and ripped it, and you can smell the torn grass in the air.
Or is it you own skin? You had put on perfume. You had bathed carefully. You had washed your hair. You had used that new soap with lavender scent and flowers. You wanted to be wanted, and no one can ever understand how terrible it felt to be told, no, I don’t want you. But you smell your skin, and it stinks of sour disappointment, and you don’t want you. You can understand why he didn’t want to have sex with you. That’s place—the smell in the air, the memory, the association. It’s all history. You are somebody real who come from somewhere, and you have been hurt in specific, deep terrible ways.
I am thinking of Bushwick. I’m thinking of the night I left for boarding school at 13. I’m thinking about how I jumped on the red ten speed bike Millie bought off a crackhead so I could ride it the two miles to the school on Rice Street in Wellesley. I’m thinking about how I rode that bike up and down the block and through my neighborhood, how in many ways I was saying bye to everything I knew and loved because though I didn’t know I’d never return to live there again, I knew that I would never be the same. I knew that I was saying goodbye to my childhood.
That’s the Brooklyn I remember. That’s the place I return to in my memory and my stories over and over again. The Bushwick that was rubble for blocks, with Santa Barbara Church on Wilson Avenue, that gaudy church that stood out against its background—the poverty and the drugs and the violence.
I think about how according to popular culture, we are made to believe that our stories and our places aren’t beautiful. I think of the poem “Rat Ode” by Elizabeth Acevedo that I heard her read at WordUp Bookstore a while back.
In an interview with Blavity, Elizabeth says the poem “was inspired by a renowned poet saying that rats aren’t noble enough creatures for a poem. And I think about the politics around that statement, how a poet can try to create a hierarchy of topics and make certain things un-writable and it really struck me. I was raised in a very rat-infested neighborhood. I know rats better than most people know deer or blackbirds or whatever creature is “noble.” So I wrote the poem as a kind of ars poetica. An ode to writing my authentic experience and not subscribing to notions of what’s canonically appropriate poetic content.”
We are so often told that where we’re from isn’t beautiful enough to write about. It’s too poor. Too black. Too brown. Too ghetto. Too ugly. Too marginalized. Too loud. Too much of too much.
When we don’t learn our histories in school, we are taught that our people have no history or at least not a history worthy of being studied. Our culture has no merit. Nothing beautiful.
But shit, if you don’t see beauty in a people that can survive and thrive under the most devastating of circumstances, I don’t know what to tell you except that’s bullshit and you’re buggin.
Home. What does home mean to me? What does place mean to me? Can place be a person? A coming home to that person? If yes, then my home is my daughter…the only person I’ve ever been willing to make a home out of.
you can’t make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that. ~Warsan Shire
Place. The places I go to in my work: Bushwick, the backyard, that plum tree, the lumber yard next door, the hallway of 365 Palmetto Street where I got my first kiss, the schoolyard of IS 383 where I first got my heart broken, watching mami in her garden, she’s wearing a bata, I am staring from the plum tree, longing.
Inwood Park. My saving grace for the past seven years. The bruja circle I’ve run to so often, the path where the universe held me in bird song, the oldest tree in the forest (according to urban legend) that I visit whenever I’m up at the top, by the overlook, I bring her gifts of fruit. I put my palm on her trunk and feel her energy course through my arm. I’ve asked her to tell the trees in my new neighborhood that I’m coming… I think about how trees keep old trees alive through the roots…
Trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web.” They keep ancient stumps alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots. NYTimes
I was supposed to be packing on Sunday (and also writing my weekly Relentless Files essay), but instead I was sick with a cold because an opportunistic mofo bug was trying to take me out, so I did my doña remedy thing—I made a huge caldero of sopa de pollo with all the herbs and love I got because NO bug, you got nothing on homemade sopa!
Monday morning, still sniffly and feeling weak, I gave myself a pep talk, pulled myself out of bed, went for a walk with Napoleon, got myself some coffee, made myself a delicious and nutritious breakfast, and ate it while watching 101 Dalmations on VHS. Yes, I have a DVD/VHS player and am watching all the movies before donating them later this week. Judge me if you will but it’s been soothing for the soul as I pack & purge.
I spent hours packing and throwing shit out in my soon to be former crib. I did the bathroom and toiletries. And then I tackled what I’d been dreading and postponing—the paperwork. Piles and piles of paperwork that I knew I had to do by myself… I can’t say why I’ve kept some of these things. What I can say is that I teared up when I took down the collages and quotes I had up on the wall by my desk. One specifically caught my eye:
[Miixöni quih zó hant ano tiiji?]
Where is your placenta buried?
This is how the Seris ask, Where are you from?
Those who were born before hospital births
know the exact spot where their afterbirth was
placed in the ground, covered in sand
and ash, and topped with rocks.
(From National Geographic, date unknown)
Things found yesterday during the pack/purge extravaganza:
Post its of all sizes and colors
So many pens and pencils and markers and high lighters and…
Receipts. So. Many. Receipts.
At least 6 laundromat cards, you know the ones you pay 50 cents for that you need in order to use the washers and dryers. The same one you manage to leave home, every single time you go do laundry.
Movie ticket stubs
A lock with a key still in it
A lock without a key
Bookmarks, one with a pic of baby girl from PK4
USB flash drives
At least a dozen buttons
Spools of thread
Barrettes and bobby pins and scrunchies and gomitas
A sample of Narciso Rodriguez for her perfume that my brother gave me…I spritzed it on my wrist & smelled my bro, saw his smile… I took a deep breath.
Box of floppy disks from who knows when
Box of never developed disposable cameras, 7 of them, 2 water proof
My pregnancy journal…my daughter is now 12
Every card, note, post it, painting, & sketch that my daughter has gifted me including a poem where the anaphora is: I love you like… the last line is: I love you like Loba (yes, I kept this one)
Baby girl’s school pictures, from pre-K 3 to 6th grade…many which I never did give to family (eep!)
A numbers paper game baby girl made
A quote in my own script: “Wisdom tells me I am nothing; love tells me I am everything. Between the two, my life flows.”
Business cards, not my own…about 100 of them
Business cards, my own. So many.
Pictures of so many people and places and memories…I had to stop flipping through these because it was taking up too much time and was giving me all the feels and I was already wrapped in my feelings so…
A journal…the first words I wrote: God is constantly encountered…
My original birth certificate. I found it odd that it was stamped in 1977 when I was born in 75. Then I wondered if this is the reissue mami got after my father finally gave me his last name months after I was born…changing the name on my social security was a mission that took me years…
Cards and personal notes from my students when I left a job at Mott Haven HS in November 2007 — “never let the thunder destroy you…” wrote one student
A hard copy of “We were made for these times” by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes
A folded up, annotated copy of Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is not a luxury”
This annotated essay from The Sun which I read again and totally understood why I saved it: “I persevere. It’s all I know how to do.”
Passenger and checked bags tickets from various trips, San Fran, Miami, Minneapolis, Portland and more
A quote my daughter gave me a while back: “Become aware that there are no accidents in our intelligent universe. Realize that everything that shows up in your life has something to teach you. Appreciate everyone and everything in your life.” ~Wayne Dyer (my mother texted me as I was typing this into my iPhone notes ap)
The envelope where I kept the money I saved so I could take this past summer off to write. I saved enough to cover my rent and bills for three months. I’ve never done this before—save $ like that. This unmothered woman wasn’t taught money management. This year I proved to myself that I can save money and don’t have to live check to check… I noted when I took $ out from savings, what I paid, etc. This was a big step for me at 40. Word.
A whimsical card: a girl on her red bike, long hair flowing in the wind, trees, stars and lanterns in the backdrop, & a quote: “Sometimes life takes you down new and unexpected roads. This too, is part of the ride.”
So many collages…
I’m writing this from my bed in the red room that’s been my bedroom and office and living room for the past seven years. I gave my daughter the bedroom because that’s what mamas do. I didn’t have my own bedroom until I was seventeen and in my first year of college so I know firsthand how much a girl needs her own room. One of the things I’m looking forward to in my new home is having my own space, being able to close a door for privacy…
I haven’t finished packing. I haven’t finished sorting through the paper work. There are three piles right by my bed that I’m going to tackle as soon as I post this here essay. I’ve learned a lot from this packing up and purging process.
I went out to the park last night to stand under the big, starry sky in the middle of the field. I looked up and breathed deep. Then I said a simple Thank you as tears fell down my face. It wasn’t a sad cry or a sobbing cry. It was a release kind of cry. It was the cry that had been building as I packed up and purged the last seven years of my life. I feel lighter… and I feel ready to start this new life. Word.