*An essay a week in 2016*
I finished moving this week. It was a long, difficult process that brought up so many emotions. I found things that twisted up my insides and/or made me question why the hell did I save all this shit? Things like letters I wrote to my daughter’s father (aka baby daddy) when we first met and letters my brother sent me when he was locked up. Poems my daughter wrote to me. Letters I wrote to myself. Random quotes and journals. So many journals.
The bulk of the move happened on Sunday, but I had to go back on Monday and Tuesday to finish things up, pack the miscellaneous items and throw out a shit ton of trash.
On Monday, I stopped at my favorite Dominican spot for a lonche and my coffee. I wondered if I’ll ever find a spot like this where the doña (Clara is her name) added two spare rib tips for free to my lunch (“’Ta bueno, pruebalo,” she said) and knows how to make my coffee perfectly without me having to ask. I told her I was moving and she gave me her blessing but not until after she shared stories of her many moves over the years. This woman who will read you in a second and the next will wink at you and give you a piece of pan con mantequilla fresh off the press.
Later, at the old spot, as I packed my comino and sofrita, I realized that doing this made the move more real. This is doña speak, I know.
On November 1st, I finally moved everything out and turned in the key to the super. There’s something about shutting the door for the last time to a place that was once home, home for seven critical years of your life, where you took your life back and became a new and more authentic and driven as fuck and relentless you. What a ride. And now on to start a delicious new, a love-filled new, a new you are so ready for…this is what you’ve been grinding for. Enjoy it, nena. You deserve it.
They say that when you declutter and/or move, you open up space for the universe to gift you. I was reminded of the truth of this on Wednesday evening when I found out that I was accepted into Tin House’s 2017 Creative Nonfiction (CNF) Winter Workshop. I applied last minute, on the day the scholarship ap was due, knowing full well that if I didn’t get the scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to go. But if I’m anything, I’m a risk taker, so I did what I do: I submitted a portion of the memoir that I completed this past summer and I proceeded to kick that scholarship letter’s ass.
When I write, I am that little girl up in the plum tree in our backyard in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I am watching my mother tend to her garden, treating the tomato vines and pepper plants with a tenderness I rarely felt. I am that little girl sitting at my mother’s feet. She is sewing a flower onto a table cloth as she tells me stories of her childhood in La Ceiba, Honduras where she endured the kind of poverty we only see in Save the Children Commercials. She grows quiet when she gets to the part about coming to the U.S. at 15. That’s where she always stopped, no matter how much I tried to pry it out of her. I write to fill in those silences to understand why and how she became the woman and mother she did, and why I, in turn, became an unmothered woman.
I haven’t always known this. It was in my Tin House workshop with Lacy Johnson in February 2016 that I uncovered this. Lacy asked, “Where is your mother in this?” During our one on one, she said, “A memoir attempts to answer a question.” I heard the question right away: How have I and how will I continue to live without my mother?
I walked into Tin House thinking I was writing a memoir called Relentless about my journey through grief after losing my brother in 2013 to a fifteen year heroin addiction. Lacy helped me see that I was in fact writing the same book I’d abandoned when Carlos died: A Dim Capacity for Wings. I couldn’t finish it because I hadn’t faced the grief that has haunted me my entire life: the grief over being unmothered.
This past summer I sat with my stories and everything I learned at Tin House. I tried to find the structure to put the book together, and it was reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water that gave me the permission to say, “Fuck traditional structure!” I braid stories. My book is a mixtape. Lidia Yuknavitch helped me own that.
It was at Tin House that I unlocked the first half of this book. I’m in a transitional period in my life and my work, and am ready to tackle the second half of Wings and the question that arose in the writing: what is resilience and what is about me that I’ve been able to create something beautiful out of these ghosts that haunt me while my brother Carlos was taken out by his? I know that Tin House can help me unlock this second part and finish this book that I’ve been writing for more than ten years.
I had some tremendous epiphanies while at Tin House in February. Sitting on the veranda with Dorothy Allison, the backdrop the crashing Pacific Ocean, I was reminded of why I’m writing this book and why it’s so important: it tells the story of unmothered women like me who somehow make their way in this world, who have survived and thrived in spite of (and maybe because of) all of it.
I didn’t get the scholarship though the folks at Tin House did make it a point to tell me that I made it to the final 7 of the 215 applicants.
I immediately went into how-the-fuck-am-I-gonna-afford-this mode? The workshop costs are: $1300 for the workshop and housing at the Sylvia Beach Hotel on Nye Beach. That doesn’t include the flight from NYC to Portland or transportation to and from the airports or meals or incidentals…
I took to Facebook.
Status 1 – So what do you do if you get into a really prestigious and competitive workshop (1 in 5 got in), and though you made it to the last round, you didn’t get the scholarship, but if you go, you will work with someone whose work helped you finish half our book, how do you proceed?
Status 2 – Full disclosure: I got into Tin House’s CNF Winter Workshop. I did not get the scholarship. I cannot afford it. I could work with Lidia Yuknavitch whose Chronology of Water helped me figure out the structure of my memoir and, as a result, I was able to finish half of it thiss summer. I have some big decisions to make this week… Gah!
Status 3 – At what point do you feel worthy of the love you are given? Tonight I had a talk with my daughter about getting into Tin House but not getting the scholarship. I told her about the love people are offering me in the form of money and praise and “we gotchu.” I admitted that I was uncomfortable. She asked why. I told her about the money I raised a year ago for the same workshop (from which I walked out with the question the memoir attempts to answer which, if you’re a writer, you know is momentous and necessary). She said: “What does that have to do with anything.” Then she looked at me, all wise and shit and said, “You can’t turn down people’s love. You give so much, mommy. It’s okay to accept love too.” I’m a big ball of emotion right now. Bear with me, fam. This unmothered woman is still learning how to mother herself and let others love her.
Status 4 – Bruja sis Lizz said, “You feel uncomfortable because you think you don’t deserve it.” This is the thing about emotions: even if logically we know we give and grind and are relentless, emotions are not logical. These kind are rooted in our traumas, in what we didn’t get as kids, those ghosts that haunt us, waiting for vulnerable moments like these to pounce and remind us…despite all the work we do, they are there to push us to keep doing the work, keep manifesting the holy spirits that we are, for if it is true that God created us in Her image, then it’s true that we carry God in us and therefore, I dare say, we are Gods too…& perhaps the journey of this human life is to see that and own that and manifest that God essence we all have within us, right? Don’t mind me. I’m blabbering. I’m trying to work through all this emotion y’all got me feeling gifting me all this love and “we gotchu.” All I can say right now is that I am grateful and I’ll get back to you. Loba’s got some big decisions to make.
So many of my FB friends and familia reached out to tell me that they had my back. They inboxed me, responded to my statuses, texted me. The overwhelming consensus was: I deserve this. I should do it. I should crowdfund. I should let my community love on me, so here goes everything.
I am raising $2100. Why so much?
– Tin House is $1300. A generous donor sent me $450 which with the $50 my partner gave me covers the deposit I put down earlier this evening. So, that leaves $800.
– The flight is upwards of $425 plus taxes, fees, etc. averages out to say, $500.
– I need to feed myself while I’m out there and get around (taxis from airport, etc.).
– And finally, GoFundMe takes a percentage of the money you raise… They are a business, after all.
Last year, around this time, I got into Tin House to work with Lacy Johnson. I had applied to work with Dorothy Allison. Tin House made the right decision by placing me in the workshop with Lacy Johnon. I still remember my one on one with Lacy where she said, “A memoir answers a question or at least tries to.” I heard the question right away in my heart: “How have I and how will I continue to live without my mother?” I’d been trying to write this book for ten years. It was only after my brother died in 2013 that I finally faced the grief I’ve been carrying all my life: the grief over being unmothered. The grief over how abusive she was when I was a kid and how I made that brave choice at 13 to leave her home and make my way in the world, and become a woman through trial and error. I am now a month shy of 41 and that wound is still there, though the work I’ve done over the years—the therapy and the writing and the deliberate sitting and confronting my wounds—have helped ebb its sting.
I walked away from the book for a few months after Tin House to let it and myself breathe. I had to process what I’d just learned. I had to mull over that question. I had to let that shit roil inside of me. “How have I and how will I continue to live without my mother?”
This book is an in depth look at my life and what led up to my leaving at 13 and what happened afterwards. All the shit I did, the missteps, the beautiful and the ridiculous, that were direct consequences of me looking for the love my mother couldn’t give me in people and sex and partying and a whole bunch of other shit but the right shit.
But just because I wasn’t working on the book directly, didn’t mean I wasn’t working on it indirectly. I was still writing my weekly Relentless Files essays and I was journaling and I was reading tons. That’s when I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water. I had to read the book slow. I read it at night by nightlight, a box of tissue next to me. This woman who had such a different life than mine but also had to deal with much of the same abuse and abandonment. She spoke to everything I was feeling. She gave my feelings life and reminded me that our stories matter, that we matter, and writing ourselves into existence matters… I remembered what I’ve said to my Writing Our Lives students time and again: We write to connect. We write to take our power back.
This is something I know: damaged women? We don’t think we deserve kindness. In fact, when kindness happens to us, we go a little berserk. It’s threatening. Deeply. Because if I have to admit how profoundly I need kindness? I have to admit that I hid the me who deserves it down in a sadness well.
So yes I know how angry, or naïve, or self-destructive, or messed up, or even deluded I sound weaving my way through these life stories at times. But beautiful things. Graceful things. Hopeful things can sometimes appear in dark places. Besides, I’m trying to tell you the truth of a woman like me.
I don’t have any problem understanding why people flunk out of college or quit their jobs or cheat on each other or break the law or spray-paint walls. A little bit outside of things is where some people feel each other. We do it to replace the frame of family. WE do it to erase and remake our origins in their own images. To say, I too was here.
Sometimes a mind is just born late, coming through waves on a slower journey. You were never, in the end, alone. Isn’t it a blessing, what becomes from inside the alone?
I could sit here and quote so many lines and paragraphs and whole chapters that stayed with me and dug in and made me flinch and wince and cry and say, out loud, “Yes, yes yes!” and “Oh shit!” But it was these lines that made me think of the structure of my book, which I had been breaking my head about up to that point (hearing Lacy Johnson tell me: You have the stories. What your book needs is structure.):
“Your life doesn’t happen in any kind of order. Events don’t have cause and effect relationships the way you wish they did. It’s all a series of fragments and repetitions and patter formations. Language and water have this in common.”
“Have endless patterns and repetitions accompanying your thoughtlessness, as if to say let go of that other more linear story, with its beginning, middle and end, with its transcendent end, let go, we are the poem, we have come miles of life, we have survived this far to tell you, go on, go on.”
I took these words to heart. I thought about what I’d learned about traditional structure. I thought about the structure I was trying to impose on the book. I thought about how I’ve written and rewritten these stories again and again. These stories that make up this book. A Dim Capacity for Wings. I thought about how I tell stories: I’m a braider. I weave stories together, from the past and the present. I often don’t know how they are related until I look at them together. If I’ve learned anything over this Relentless Files challenge (46 weeks!), it’s to give myself over to mystery, to surrender to process, to trust myself and these stories… So I sat with the book this summer and I wrote.
I can still recall specific moments: I am sitting in a café, surrounded by the smell of coffee and butter, a little girl is talking in her tiny, wise voice to her dad. She is speaking Spanish (español castellano), and she is asking him questions: Papi, que le ponen as croissant que le da su sabor? Papi, que vamos a’cer despues de comer? Papi, porque te gusta el café tanto? I smile, nod at dad and turn to the page. I am writing about my father. I am weaving stories about him, how he tried to beat me out of my mother when she found out she was pregnant though she was on birth control (she took the pill for four months before realizing I was growing inside of her). I am thinking about that daughter and that father and how I never had that and how I deal with my baby daddy’s bs because I want to save my daughter from the hole I walk with where my father should be… As I sit and write, I remember a story I wrote some time ago. It fits perfectly. I find it and plug it into the chapter. Then I remember another and another. Before I know it, I’ve put these stories together to create a chapter: “Not My Daddy’s Girl.”
Lidia Yuknavitch helped me get out of my own way to see that I have the stories. They are there. It’s about me putting them together. It’s about me asking the book: What do you want? Listening and then following suit.
I wrote half of A Dim Capacity for Wings this summer. Seven chapters. I did that. Me. It’s time to finish it. It’s time for me to birth this baby.
Last year I raised the funds I needed to attend Tin House (plus some) in under 24 hours. Funders included students, friends, strangers who follow my writing, and a generous $1000 donation from one of my favorite writers, Roxane Gay.
I’d raised money before, though it had been years since, and the last time was to attend VONA in 2011 or 2012, I believe. This time felt different because I was different and my writing was different. I’m more vulnerable and in your face, so to have one of my favorite writers, someone I look up to and follow, who I’ve met only twice and don’t know personally, endorse my work and in a way say: “I believe in you and support you,” there’s nothing like that. Nothing.
There’s this idea that you shouldn’t need anyone else’s praise or support, and maybe in an ideal work that would be true but we’re not living in an ideal world. We live in a world where we’re still dealing with our traumas and heartbreaks. We’re all human. We’re all fighting our own private wars, and if needing and wanting to be seen helps us through, then there’s beauty in that, and there is cojones in letting oneself be that vulnerable and that seen.
With this GoFundMe I am letting myself be vulnerable and seen and all that. This is hard for me. I have trouble asking for help and even more trouble accepting it. I keep thinking about my bruja sis Lizz who told me that a spiritual adviser said that not being able to accept help is an issue of control: when you’re the one giving, you’re the one in control; when accepting help, you’re relinquishing all control. Ain’t that some shit?! Yikes!
So here I go relinquishing control and turning to you, fam, to help me make this happen.
I have to raise $800 by December 9th to pay for the workshop.
The rest of the money will cover the flight, transportation to and from the airport, food, incidentals and the GoFundMe fees. This year, for the first time, I got perks that include a handwritten note, a one liner just for you (and maybe about you) by me, coaching sessions, books, and mad, mad love! Check the campaign for details: Send Vanessa to Tin House Again!
I love you. Thank you for supporting this dream of mine. I appreciate you.