*An essay a week in 2016*
I tried to finish this essay yesterday. I tried to sit in my livingroom to type it, while my partner slept next to me. When I came up with nothing, I moved to my writing room. Still, nothing. So I closed my computer and sat. I brooded. I let myself feel it…this turning 41 thing that’s happening.
I decided to purge my yahoo email last week. My gosh, the emails I found. Pictures and notes and so much. Even some writing from someone who is now gone and went in a pretty heinous way. Let’s just say it was bad, real bad. I reached out to my boy RicK Villar to share since the mutual friend was his longtime, brother-friend. We messaged back and forth for a while. I explained that I apparently don’t delete anything. He said: “It’s not in your nature to delete a motherfuckin’ thing. There’s a reason why Carolyn Forche called that anthology Against Forgetting.”
Why don’t I let myself forget? Or is the question why do I always have to remember? Or why do I always have to make it so I am reminded?
One of the things I noticed: how many low balance alerts I used to get from Chase. Ha! A reminder of how far I’ve come. No, I’m not rolling in dough just yet, but I am definitely doing better than I was.
I am not the most patient person. I know that. I’m not in denial of who I am. But I do try. I try hard. Especially with my younger students who have the odds against them and struggle.
I’m thinking specifically of this one student, an African American young man from East Harlem who is bullshitting but I want to help anyway. He’s part of a writing program where I help seniors write the personal statement and supplement essays for their college applications. He’s been to a total of maybe three classes since the beginning of September. Two weeks ago he told me he had written a new essay. When I asked to see it, he told me he couldn’t access his email, for some reason. I knew better but I let it go. I was just happy he showed up to class, so we looked over the essay he wrote in the spring which needed tons of work. Last week he came in saying he’d written a new essay. I told him to go print it. He came back to the classroom a half hour later without said essay. Told me he couldn’t print it. Wasn’t sure why. I went to the computer and asked him to pull up the essay. He pointed to the computer where his essay was on the screen. It was the computer that doesn’t have internet access. I asked, “Did you just write this?” He shook his head and smiled. These fools think they’re smarter than me. I walked away. I was pissed. Some teachers would lose faith in this kid. I’m sure there’s a long line of teachers who have. He’s a smart ass. He doesn’t take much seriously but he’s not disrespectful. I wonder who told him he wasn’t worth fighting for?
When he came back into my classroom, I called him over. “Do you want to go to college?” He shrugged. “I don’t know.” I pushed. “So what do you want to do?” “I was gonna go to Broome Community for two years.” Broome Community College is a SUNY school located in Binghamton, New York. I asked, “Do you know what the requirements are to get in?” He shook his head. I soon realized that this kid doesn’t know that my job here is to help him write his essays, not to apply for college, etc. I sat with him and led him through the website. I learned he’s interested in Engineering. “Why Broome?” I asked. “I need to get my grades up,” he confessed. I hear that.
I wonder about kids like him. How did they fall in the cracks? How is it that a kid can make it this far without knowing basic grammar and spelling, and with no real knowledge of how to write an essay? I’ve seen this time and again in the work I do with public schools. It’s heartbreaking. I think about how this is going to affect them in the future. Those college professors who have little patience for a student who has never written a 20 page academic paper.
Kids like this one make me remember why I do this work and why it’s so important. Frustrating? Sometimes. Important? Always.
This past Saturday was the last day of the Writing Our Lives Workshop 9 week personal essay writing class. We had a six hour workshop session where we workshopped the 14 essays they wrote. We ate the food they brought while each writer sacrificed her work for the greater good of the class. We talked craft and how to improve, what they got right and what they can do better. All 14 are such different writers at different places in their writing lives, but they all went in on their essays. They put such effort and heart into their work, and I am honored that they trusted me in their journeys.
I created this class six years ago and have reinvented it dozens of times. I’ve taught hundreds of writers. I know firsthand how difficult this work is–autobiographical writing requires a specific kind of willingness to mine your life and traumas. It’s a whole different kind of vulnerability. Helping my students navigate these waters is an incredible honor and responsibility. I’m so proud of them and I am grateful. I’m also utterly exhausted. This work takes a lot out of me too so I’ve been moving slow since then, and am happy to have my weekends back until January 7th when I start the year off in gratitude by offering a free five hour class. This is the work, and it is so important.
I had a GYN appointment last week. One of those “at this age you need to be doing this” kind of appointments. I had to push myself to do it. Push past my resistance and what-the-fuckness that made my hands tremble as I dialed the number to make the appointment.
Before the appointment, I went to the forest of Inwood Hill Park where I sat on a log under the trees. It’s what I miss most from my old hood. A group of toddlers had taken over my usual sit down and meditate circle. I watched them through the trees, listening to them giggle and complain. The ground was carpeted with fallen leaves and their sweet, wet, decomposing scent was all up in my nose. My doctor’s assistant called to postpone our appointment because the doctor had to deliver a baby. A hawk screeched through the canopy as I wrote about it. I imagined she was welcoming the new life. A few trees were still green and holding fast. They’re the ones that blossom last in the spring. The squirrels have fattened as they prepared for winter. The blue jays and woodpeckers are unfazed by the cold that’s coming. They fluttered about and sang. They’ve been here before. They know they will survive. And there I was, where I always return, to remember and be.
Because as a woman there’s nothing like finding a GYN that I actually like. Like, she’s a writer and she’s Nigerian and we had a whole conversation about Chris Abani and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and she says she wants to write books, no, she’s written two but hasn’t published them and wants to write more, and here I am with my legs in stirrups telling her to do it. And she answers my “I’m at that age” questions (it bugs me out to type that but hello 41) and assuages my fears and now I’m scheduled for a sonogram (cancer runs in my family so this is just precautionary) and a mammogram (ouch!) and I know this may be TMI but I don’t care because this is part of what it means to be a woman and this shit is important and we need to be able to talk about it and write about it and whatever the fuck we want about it and fuck it feels good to have a doctor that treats me like a real person and, yo, did I tell you she’s a writer. *smiles and exhales deeply
And yes she had to delay my appointment for a few hours because she had to go deliver a baby and do you know how much that made smile so I stayed a little longer in the forest of what will forever be my home park and when a hawk screeched through the canopy it felt like she was welcoming that little boy into the world, a boy that the doctor said came out screaming and shooting pee everywhere. What a way to come into the world, yo!
And that GYN asked me where I was from. One of the first things she said to me, in between the usual health and body questions that are required, was: “You’re beautiful. You look Moroccan.” She loves to meet people and talk to people and ask about their lives. Imma stay and build with this one.
On December 1st, World AIDS Days, I couldn’t stop thinking about my brother. He found out when he was just a kid in his early 20s, that he was positive. I found out months later when my ex’s mom told me on a crowded street uptown, “Pero tú no sabía que tu hermano tiene el SIDA? Eso todo el mundo lo sabe.” I turned and took two steps before my knees gave. My brother lived with that disease for 20 years. He was one of the beautiful people I’ve ever known. No one loved me like he did or looked at me like he did. I will honor you forever in my stories, bro. I love you. I miss you. Every single day. Pero I feel you everywhere. That blue jay that visited me yesterday morning was you. And the woodpecker that stopped and stared was you too. Stay close, Superman. Keep reminding me…
I can’t tell you how to live your life. I can tell you how I’ve lived mine, how I navigated this world with all my traumas and pains until I was finally ready to confront them and deal with my own shit. I can tell you that it was my brother’s death three and a half years ago that finally made me confront this grief that nearly took me out. I did it on my own time and in my own way. I had to fuck up a lot. I had to learn how to bounce back. I had to break down and it was in the break down that I was able to rise up. Here’s the thing: so many people will tell you that you should do this and do that, that you need to get over it, that you need to stop bullshitting, but I’ve never known that kind of dismissive advice to help anyone heal. So forget all that noise. Remember who you are. Remember everything you’ve suffered and survived. And remember that this is your life and only you can live it. Only you can pull yourself up. YOU! You do what you have to do to do that. I believe in you. Go be grand, boo. Show them what relentlessness looks like! Word.
I’ve been coming across a ton of folks I went to Columbia with. I’m wondering what the universe is trying to tell me. I haven’t written publicly much about my years at CU. Perhaps it’s time? What I can say is that it was complicated, some good, some not so good, some really fucked up… I’ll be 41 in a few days (December 9th) & I’ve been thinking a lot about who I am & how far I’ve come…Bushwick to Wellesley to Columbia to now. Years of drifting on the wind and making memories. I was lost for a while…then I became a mama and realized I had to get my life together, so I did. I became a writer and I wrote some books and found my footing. Six and a half years ago I quit my job to write and teach and live a life of my own creation. I am doing what I am meant to do. It’s not always easy work. It’s challenging and taxing on my heart sometimes, but it’s necessary work. And, no, I did not go the traditional route. When I finally heeded the call to write, I didn’t pursue an MFA. I studied craft obsessively. I read a shit ton of books and essays. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I went to VONA for five consecutive years. I attended workshops here in NYC like Acentos and the NYCLWG and Cave Canem. I facilitated workshops too. This year I went to Tin House & studied with Lacy Johnson & got to chill and talk to Dorothy Allison about this writing life. I’ll be back to Tin House at the end of January to work with Lidia Yuknavitch. I’ve established myself as a writer and teacher, and in 2010, I created the Writing Our Lives Workshop through which I’ve worked with hundreds of emerging writers. In 2017 I’m bringing the class online. I still sometimes question having taken the road less taken. Where would I be had I heeded the writing call sooner? How many books would I have under my belt? What if I’d gone the MFA route? Would I be a college professor? I can’t answer these questions, but last week, as I was reading the final project essays by my WOL students, I was reminded that this is where I’m supposed to be. So, I was lost for a while. So, I did some crazy shit while trying to find myself or, in turn, bury myself deeper in my grief, but had I not gone through that and felt all that, maybe I wouldn’t have become the woman who can do this work so relentlessly…and, nah, that’s just not an option. I’ve had people tell me I don’t need an MFA (thanks VONA for the reminder) and I’ve had people turn their noses up at me for not having an MFA (to which I usually comment some snide shit like: how many books you got? Oh, I have three and, no, they’re not self-published.” *Insert pursed lips emoticon.*). We all have our own paths and none of them is greater than the next. As long as you’re doing the work, writing and reading and contributing to the world positively and mindfully, you’re good. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Not even me.
The fact that I’m turning 41 is hitting me like no other age has before. Shit, I googled mid-life crisis yesterday and what I found made me both shiver and chuckle. I posted something about turning 41 on my page and a friend who is 20+ years older called me a “young whipper snapper.” I can’t stand it when people do that to me and I told him as much. Do I feel old? Not exactly. But I definitely don’t feel as young as I used to. 40 didn’t hit me like this. There’s something about 41 that’s making me look at myself and my life and what I’ve done and where I’ve been and how I’ve been and, and, and…
What I’ve been thinking about a lot is that it’s been 27 years since I left my mother’s house at 13, never to return. I did it the right way. I went to boarding school, on a full ride. I decided at that tender age that I was going to make my way out in the world. I can’t say I consciously thought anywhere is better than here, but I knew I had to get away from my mother. I knew she would never give me wings, that I had to take them and run, and that’s exactly what boarding school meant for me. I was going through the application process without much thought, then I went to Turkey (Ankara and Istanbul) in the early spring of 1989. It’s there that I knew that I was ready. It was the first time I’d traveled without my family. It was the first time I’d been so far from them alone. I remember walking through Ankara with my host sister Asli. We walked through the markets and I cringed when I saw her push past an old woman who was begging for money. She scowled when I gave the old woman all the change I had in my pocket. I can’t remember the exact moment when I knew I was ready to leave Brooklyn, but I remember coming back knowing I was definitely going to do it: I was going to leave in August to boarding school.
I’m rewriting the chapter in my memoir (chapter 7 and the end of part I of my memoir) where I tell this story. It’s what I’m submitting for my workshop at Tin House. I wrote the chapter already but can’t seem to find it. I’m taking it as a sign that I should rewrite it so that’s exactly what I’m doing. And as is the way of the universe, I’m sure that I’ll find the chapter later, after I’ve rewritten this one…
The chapter starts in the spring of 1988, in my 7th grade year, when I got into a fight with an eighth grader and knocked down two teachers trying to get to that girl. One of those teachers, Mr. Roth was my Social Studies teacher. He wondered: “You’re such an excellent student, Vanessa. What’s all this aggression?” I had some serious behavioral problems. I was imitating what I saw in my home, the violence that was inflicted on me, and the violence I saw in my neighborhood. That teacher didn’t give up on me. He became my mentor and in 8th grade, he introduced me to the ABC program and convinced my mother to let me go.
I remember the night I left. I remember riding that red ten speed bike Millie bought off a crackhead for me. I rode through Bushwick, past all the rubble and crack houses, past the baseball field where I cheered on my first love, through the Waldbaums parking lot where I got my first kiss, to Greene Street where my best friend lived, the stoop where we’d shared so many secrets and had so many laughs, to my old grammar schools and middle school. I didn’t cry. I just let the memories flood me and I said thank you and goodbye. I knew somewhere deep in me that once I left, I would never be the same Vanessa. I didn’t know how different, and I didn’t know I would become unmothered. I just knew I had to do this for me, so I did. It’s a beautiful memory. Bittersweet. Tinged with a sense of loss that will always be with me because that’s just how it is. That was 27 years ago, and here I am, still writing about the layers of these experiences I’ve had, and this journey of why I left, why I never returned, and how, no matter what I’ve been through along the way, I’d do it again and again and again…
In his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks quotes Luis Buñuel: “Life without memory is no life at all…our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.”