*An essay a week in 2016*
I had the scare of my life this week. On Wednesday evening, I started calling my daughter when I got out of teaching my high school fiction class at 6:30. I called her nonstop for until 8pm, an hour and a half, with no answer. She told me the night before that she had a performance at school for an event (she’s on a cheerleading/dance team) and would be late, but late to me is not 8pm. I told her to keep me in the loop. She didn’t. She thought telling me she would be late was enough. By the time I got home from teaching, I’d called her at least a dozen times. I thought/hoped that her phone had died and she was at home being a tween, dancing around her room, reading a book (she’s an avid reader like her mama), doing homework, anything and everything but paying attention to her phone…so when I got home and she wasn’t there, I had a full on panic attack that led to an asthma attack. I am not the worst case scenario type of person but that’s exactly where my mind went. I started thinking about all those people that criticize my parenting, telling me I give her too much independence, that I need to be stricter, more stern, a helicopter mom. “My God, they’re right. I’m a terrible mom. Where is my baby?” A whirl of horrible thoughts invaded my chest and I was shaking like crazy, crying and praying. I kept calling and texting my baby girl like a mad woman. I called and yelled at my partner, and she let me. She didn’t try to calm me down. She knew she couldn’t. She just went into fix it mode like she does and tried to come up with a plan/options: does baby girl have Find My Phone on her cell? Can we locate her that way? Have you called her school? Do you have her coach’s number? etc. I went out to walk the dog because staying in the crib was driving me further up into anxiety lane–I was ready to climb the walls. I left the dinner I bought on the stove and ran out. I was crying walking up and down the block. I walked into the park across the street. At one point, I looked at the moon through the trees and said, “Luna, por favor, traeme mi hija.” I did all this while calling my daughter over and over, praying that she’d answer, wafting between desperation and rage and terror and everything in between. When she finally called, I was so relieved, all I could do was cry and shake and blubber. She explained that she didn’t have her phone because she was performing. That she was sorry. That she told me she’d be late and she thought that was enough information. That if I didn’t believe her, I could call her coach. I explained that this wasn’t about believing her. Baby girl has never given me reason not to trust her. She’s a thriving seventh grader with a 95+ average, a dancer and singer and avid reader with a quirky personality and a heart that always surprises me with its capacity for compassion. “This isn’t about me trusting you, baby. This is about mommy being worried.” I was crying so hard, I was hiccuping. “What if you were calling me and couldn’t contact me for over an hour? What would you do?” “I would cry too, mom. I would worry.” When she got home, I hugged her so hard. “You’re trembling, mommy,” she said. We sat and talked about what happened and how it can’t happen again. She apologized again the following morning. Me? I’m just happy she’s safe. A part of me is still trembling, and I’m thinking about how careless and carefree kids can be while we the parents go insane worrying about their safety. Dios mio, she’s not even a teenager yet. Lo que me espera.
What does the aftermath of trauma look like? By Thursday, that appeared to be the theme of the week, from having a number of students dealing with no joke health issues (two of them have to drop out of my WOL class) to having a meltdown after not being able to find my kid. All this got me thinking about how my own trauma from childhood showed up in my terror on Tuesday as did my concerns about what that orange pendejo being elected means for my brown kid, my kid who is being raised in a lesbian relationship by her mom who is queer, my kid who is only now discovering how scary this world can be. I had trouble focusing on Thursday. I cried a few times. I was feeling all the soft and tender and vulnerable. And I warned people not to tell me it would be okay. I was (still am) feeling what I need to feel. Emotions are real and I don’t dismiss their validity.
At one point this week, post-lost-child-flip-out, I flashed to a memory of being at the 2009 Glamour Women of the Year Awards. It was the year Rihanna was recognized and Maya Angelou gave a remarkable speech. I remember feeling distressed by some of the statistics that were shared that night on the world our girls live in. I thought of my daughter who was then five years old. I thought about how especially hard it is for brown and black girls. The CEO of the org I worked for texted me at that moment (she was sitting by the stage in Carnegie Hall while I was up on the balcony) and I shared my distress. She told me, “No. Our girls are fine. Don’t think like that.” She in essence shut down my feelings. I remember thinking that she as a white woman with a white daughter was coming from a place of privilege. She didn’t get where I was coming from because she didn’t have the same concerns I did as a brown woman who is raising a brown daughter. And the thing is: she didn’t try, she just dismissed it. Swatted my worries away. This memory came up as I contemplated how crazy I went when I couldn’t locate my kid for an hour and a half. I thought about the brown and black girls that have gone missing in the Bronx and how that hasn’t made headline news. This is the world we live in. Don’t tell me not to worry, especially if your concerns aren’t the same as mine and you can’t identify with my worries as a mother who is not white with a child who is not white. I will not respond kindly.
Like my daughter, I was really active and involved when I was in elementary and middle school. I went to after school programs and was in dance and cheerleading teams. In 1989, when I was in 8th grade, I auditioned and was accepted to a dance group that traveled to Turkey to dance in the NATO Children of the World Festival. The practices leading up to the audition started in fall of 1988, followed by choreography and practice sessions until we departed for two weeks in April. All this meant that after school, I headed to rehearsals at a school that was out of my way and about two miles from where home was. By the time I got out, I couldn’t use my train pass because in those days, your pass (which you flashed at the token booth attendant) was only good until 6pm and practices often went much later than that. So, I had to walk home through my Bushwick hood, at the height of the crack epidemic, when the neighborhood was a pile of rubble and had a history of violence and gang activity. My mother made sure to tell me what routes to take and I didn’t dare stray from them. I learned quickly what blocks to stay away from. Drugs were everywhere, both the selling and use of them. You could hear the dealers yelling “Eight ball! Eight ball” when you walked through certain blocks, and you’d see the fiends smoking from their pipes in alleys and corners. The smell of burnt cotton candy will forever remind me of crack.
I usually walked home alone, but on occasion, Mom or Millie met me along the route. One day, mom came running out of Millie’s station wagon (the one with the wood panelling on the side and Borincueña hanging from the rearview mirror — how very Boricua of her!). Mom was hysterical, yelling and spitting, a crazed expression on her face. “Where were you?” That’s when she first swung. The slap landed on my arm. “We’ve been looking all over for you?” She swung again. Grabbed me by my hair and yanked. I’d learn later that the stiffness and ache in my neck that was often the result of mom’s rages, was whiplash. “Mommy,” I whimpered. “You told me to come this way.” She stopped. Let go of my hair.
“Que?” She looked at me with a confused expression. “Ay m’ija, get in the car.”
I wiped my tears and avoided Millie’s pleading eyes staring at me in the rearview. I learned early on that she couldn’t protect me from my mother.
I’d forgotten this memory but it came rushing back when I couldn’t find my daughter. I understand my mom’s rage that day in a whole different way. I get now that she was scared. My mother has trouble processing her emotions. Anger she can deal with. Fear and desperation, not so much. So, when she saw me, walking down the street, 13 years old, applying to boarding school and going to Turkey without my family, she lost her shit. Her fear manifested itself in rage. Yes, I reacted differently when my daughter finally called me, but in the thick of it, I vacillated between rage and terror.
This parenting thing is so fuckin’ hard.
What I’m learning (again): You have to take care of yourself when doing this work. I mean the work of digging into your traumas and writing from your wounds. It’s crazy what can happen to your body when you excavate your life… For me, it shows up as asthma. Grief lives in the lungs. This semester, four of my Writing Our Lives students have encountered serious health problems. Three were hospitalized. Two had to drop the class. Their bodies are revolting. I asked them: where does your trauma lie? Are you paying attention? What is your body telling you? What have you buried so deep that your body is now fighting you going there? We come up with these myriad ways to survive. The thing is that eventually they stop working, and the trauma starts to bleed into the rest of your life, your relationships… Still, we must be grateful for what our minds and hearts did to help us keep going. These coping mechanisms (my therapist calls them “creative adjustments”) served their purpose–we’re here, right? But they have an expiration date. That’s when it’s your turn to take the reins and work deliberately on your healing. And the thing is: Healing as a journey, not a destination. It’s not easy work. Most of the world would rather pretend this shit doesn’t exist. But we know better. We’re not most of the world. We are guerreras. Our ancestors are counting on us. We are counting on us. Go slow. Poco a poco. Día a día. Do the work, the digging… we are your own archeological sites. We are worth the effort. Word.
When I told my therapist about the week I’ve had, I said: “Trauma has been the theme of the week.” Later, he said, “It seems like safety is the theme, Vanessa.” He explained that those creative adjustments were to meant to protect us in a world (and maybe from a world?) that was unsafe. After all, the definition of safety is: the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury. (Google.com)
What came up for me when I couldn’t find my daughter, was also about safety: Is she safe? Why can’t I ensure her safety all the time? I know it’s impossible but fuck that’s so hard to accept. The memory about my mom’s reaction when she couldn’t find me was about safety as was the memory of the Glamour Awards.
I went right to work when Trump was elected. My work took on a new urgency–my writing and my teaching. “What about you?” my therapist asked. “What are you doing to take care of yourself?” I was stumped. I realized, I’m doing it again. When I feel helpless and desesperada, I go to work because it makes me feel like I’m doing something, like I can do something to make the world a better place, for my daughter, for my students, for my family…for myself. But that work is taxing. It takes so much out of me. What am I doing to take care of myself while doing it? Isn’t this what I preach to my students? You have to take care of yourself while you do the work…
This election caught up to me in a whole different way this week. When my daughter was “missing,” I was confronted by my real feelings of dread and worry about the state of this country, the 700+ reports of hate crimes in the last 12 days since Trump was elected, the racist, white supremacists he’d choosing to serve in his cabinet. I’m fuckin scared. I’m worried. I’m terrified for me, my daughter, my family, my students, their families, you, our communities, us… We people of color, we marginalized, we queer and LGBTQ, non-Christian folks are being targeted. This is our generation’s civil rights movement. It’s our McCarthy era. And, yes, this gives my work more urgency. Yes, the work is more important now than ever…and so is my health, my emotional, spiritual, physical health. My asthma’s been acting up these past few weeks. I told you that grief is centered in the lungs, right? I’ve had two migraines since last week. One of them took me out. My stomach has also been a mess–I carry my stress in my stomach. My anxiety is running high. I can feel my heart pounding in my ears as I type this… How do we take care of ourselves while we do this very necessary, critical work? Last night my partner and I spent time, we cuddled and watched movies and reminded one another of love. This morning I went for a long walk. Now I’m sitting at this desk. Later I will cook a delicious, healthy meal. I will lesson plan. I will sit with myself. I am committed to doing something daily specifically for my emotional, spiritual and physical health. Even if that just means sitting out on the deck by myself under the moon after baby girl and my partner are asleep. We take care poco a poco. Día a día. It’s all I have for now…
I sometimes wonder about what my life would have been like had I done what was expected of me and kept going on the Ivy League track I was on. This morning, at a Starbucks in my new hood, I ran into someone I went to Columbia with (I may not have hung out with all the students of color in that very white school, but we all knew one another.) He was grading papers. Turns out he’s an English professor at a cushy private school. “Are you a writer?” I ask. He did that half nod, half shrug thing we do when we’re not sure how to answer a question, when we want to believe something is true of ourselves but we can’t own it for whatever reason. “I’m off again, on again working on a novel.” I nodded excitedly. Told him I wrote a novel. Told him about VONA. He gave me his card. Turns out he’s chair of the English Department at his school. “Fancy,” I said. I told him I’m going to Tin House. That I work for VONA now and he should consider it. He has two kids, his job…”it’s hard.” Truth is he has a stability I don’t have. He made his decision and I made mine. Who is happier or more satisfied, I can’t say. What I can say is that I know that look of resignation and, dare I say, disappointment when he spoke of his novel. I know his eyes opened wide when I told him I’m a teaching artist because I can make my own hours, “and focus on your writing,” he said, finishing my sentence for me. I know when I told him how involved I was in the literary world, he sighed and said, “I’m not.” I know that yesterday when my Writing Our Lives students spoke about the final project essays due in a few days, when they shared their fears and how good they felt about all the writing they’ve done over the past few weeks of class, I knew then that I am absolutely where I’m supposed to be, doing the work I am supposed to do, and although I chose the path less taken, one riddled with so many failures and frustrations and heartbreaks, I can’t say I’d change a thing because I’m here and I’m writing and teaching and doing work that fulfills me and makes a difference, and this is a beautiful place to be…. I just gotta keep reminding myself to take care of myself on the journey.