*An essay a week in 2017*
I’m three essays behind, well, two with this one, but as I learned while doing this challenge last year, sometimes you have to cut yourself some slack. I’ve traveled three times over the past month, twice on a plane. Minneapolis, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; Washington, D.C. So yeah, you fall behind sometimes. Life happens. Be gentle with yourself. Push yourself but not to the breaking point. Just remember to write. Produce. If you want to catch up, cool. If not, then just start where you are. Remember what Daniel José Older says in his essay “Writing Begins with Forgiveness”:
Here’s what stops more people from writing than anything else: shame. That creeping, nagging sense of ‘should be,’ ‘should have been,’ and ‘if only I had…’ Shame lives in the body, it clenches our muscles when we sit at the keyboard, takes up valuable mental space with useless, repetitive conversations. Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not.
I’ve been churning this excerpt from Chapter 7 of my memoir in my mind since I got back from Tin House. It’s about the trip to Turkey in the spring of my 8th grade year that convinced me that I was ready to go to boarding school.
The day we left to Turkey, we had to meet a bus outside the school where we had practices. We were there before the sun rose, me and my mom and the other 15 kids and their parents. The bus took us to JFK airport for our flight to Switzerland, where you could see the Alps from the airport, then on to Ankara. I held onto mom the entire bus ride to the airport. I barely looked out the window. I buried my face into her arm, inhaling her, the aroma a combination of Avon’s 24 Hour deodorant, Newport cigarettes and Estes Lauder perfume. When we arrived to the airport, I didn’t want to let her go. I cried as I watched them remove the luggage from the storage beneath the bus. “I don’t wanna go, mommy.” She hugged me tight, then cupped my face in her hands and said, “Go see the world, Vanessa.”
This was the first time I’d traveled anywhere without my family. I remember walking through Ankara with my host sister Asli, a blonde haired, blue eyed girl my age, who lived in a high rise condominium. From the windows in the apartment, you could see the entire city, the buildings with huge banners of the national hero Ataturk flapping in the wind, and the green covered mountains in the distance.
They had a live-in maid who I rarely saw. One day, I walked into the bathroom which was the size of the room I shared with my sister in New York. Asli’s period soaked underwear were in the tub. When I asked her to move them so I could shower, she sneered at me, “That’s the maid’s job.” One of the few times I saw the maid was that day, as I watched her grab the underwear and rinse them before taking them, still wet, into her room through a side door in the long hallway.
One day, towards the end of my weeklong stay there, Asli took me to the markets to go shopping for souvenirs. I cringed when I saw her push past an old woman who was begging for money. The old woman didn’t say anything. She just held out her hands, cupped in front of her, her fingers curled in awkwardly, head down, pleading. She reminded me of my great grandmother Tinita with her deep wrinkles and skin brown like the frijoles she shelled in the patio every morning. I gave the old woman all the change I had in my pocket. The women turned her eyes up to look at who had given her enough change to fill her hands. Asli pulled me away before I could meet those eyes.
I can’t remember the exact moment when I knew I was ready to leave Brooklyn, but I came back knowing I was definitely going to do it: I was going to boarding school. ~A Dim Capacity for Wings by Vanessa Mártir
Lidia Yuknavitch asked: what’s the story behind the story? The writers in my group of six asked: what was it exactly that made me decide to leave? What was it about this trip that did it for me–made me say: Yes. Me voy. I’m out?
I’ve felt that acrid taste in my throat since that day way back in 1989. It was in Turkey that I first learned shame. Shame of where I was from. Shame for being from the people I was from. For being poor and brown and from the hood.
While at AWP last week, I went to a lecture by Jacqueline Woodson, the insanely prolific and generous writer who has won so many awards and accolades, it’s ridiculous. But she’s also earned every single one. She’s written 32 books. Thirty-fuckin-two, yo. *pause for effect*… In her most recent book, Another Brooklyn, which I devoured and just love love love, she wrote about the Bushwick she grew up in in the 70s and 80s. During her lecture she spoke about how in her research, she only found tragedy when looking for stories of the neighborhood in that era. She said she wanted to honor Bushwick, that neighborhood that shaped so much of who she is.
During the Q&A, I thanked her for writing about our hood. She asked where I was from, and it turns out we grew up just blocks from one another. I asked: “How did you get past the shame that is imposed on us for being where we’re from?” She said: “that shame grew to rage.” She knew she didn’t learn that rage at home. At home she learned love and pride and hard work. She learned quickly that that shame was from the “outside gaze,” and that was how she was able to transform it to rage. “Who was that person who made me feel that shame?”
My heart flashed to the last time I let someone make me feel ashamed of where I’m from.
It’s raining out. A cold early spring day. It is night time. We are on our way back to my small one bedroom apartment in uptown Manhattan. We have just left a poetry reading. A friend and her husband are staying at my place for the night. We are talking about how she has always wanted to live in NY. They are talking about the possibilities. Where could they live? Where should they look if the opportunity presents itself? He is listing the things he needs: sufficient space, an office, a living room, a washer and dryer. The list goes on. Then he says: “I don’t want to live in a dump just to live in NY.” My insides crumble.
I am a single mom. I live in a one bedroom apartment with my daughter. It is mine. The lease in under my name. It is the apartment I moved to in a neighborhood I love, close to my aunt, to help facilitate the writing life I am building for myself. I cannot afford a two bedroom. I can’t afford a building with a washer and dryer in the basement, much less an apartment with such luxuries. I am happy to get an apartment within my price range in the quieter side of the hood. I give my daughter the bedroom because girls need their own space. I learned this when I didn’t have my own room until I was 17 and a first year at Columbia University. I am proud of what I’d accomplished, on my own, a single mom who has recently quit her full-time editing job to live this writing life. All that pride comes crashing down when I hear that word: “dump.”
I feel small. Smaller than he probably intended. It probably isn’t a direct attack on me, but it sure feels like it. I know the smugness of class privilege well. I learned it in Turkey and I learned it in boarding school and at Columbia and in corporate America and in so many places.
This man grew up in privilege. His parents are college professors. He grew up in a house in the burbs. In my mind it is a two story brick beauty with a manicured lawn and even hedges and rose bushes. The kind of house I would walk by in Wellesley, MA, where I went to boarding school, and imagine the family that lived there. So different from me and mine.
This man does not have college debt. He now lives in a house he rents for his family. When he’s struggled to pay the bills, his family has chipped in. They send care packages with his favorite treats. He can say that he will not live in a “dump” just so he can live in New York. He can do so and not understand how hurtful that is. He can say that and not get how accomplished I felt (and still feel) for creating this life for myself, by myself. He does not get how that could feel good or fulfilling to anyone. All he sees is a dump.
I see freedom.
In Ankara, I saw myself in that maid when she picked up those blood soaked panties. I could relate more to her life than I could to Asli’s. Asli who lived in a high rise condominium with a view of the city from every room. Asli with her own bedroom that had space for two beds, one that I slept in. Asli with her Guess jeans and Benetton sweaters. Asli who stared at me then to her mom when she discovered I hadn’t brought her a gift from New York. I never did tell her that I couldn’t afford to.
I understood the maid’s slumped shoulders and downcast eyes. I understood why she hid. I knew my hometown probably looked more like hers than it did Asli’s.
I saw my greatgrandmother in that old woman begging in the street in the market. I’m still haunted by the fact that I let Asli push me away when that woman looked up to see who had filled her cupped hands with change.
And so it was in Turkey that I first felt shame for being from Bushwick. The rubble for blocks. The crack. The trash strewn lots. The poverty. The hunger.
In Turkey I realized I didn’t just want to get away from my mother and her abuse. I wanted to get away from Bushwick. From home. I wanted to see a different world and be part of a different world. I wanted to not feel what I felt when I saw that woman pick up those period soaked panties. When I saw Asli sneer and say, “That’s the maid’s job.” At 13, the only way out from that suffocating feeling was to go away to boarding school. I didn’t realize that that experience would break me in an entirely different way…
That outside gaze is a mothafucka. It will break you. It will teach you shame…and then you learn to transform that shame into rage.
While at AWP, I went to a reading in a tunnel. One of those abandoned metro stations that has been converted to an art space. One wall was graffitied up with some dopeness in bright colors and hues. I was mesmerized. Then I noticed the opposite wall where someone had written in large letters: There are no female graffiti artists in this exhibit. Women had begun to draw and write messages in marker. I wrote:
“Carry rage in your jaw. Don’t let them take it from you. That and love are your arsenal.”
I had a sister friend at AWP who kept telling me she didn’t belong there, amongst all those writers and poets and wordsmiths. This woman’s work is phenomenal. I can’t count the times her poetry has taken my breath. I’ve even teared up a few times.
She’s from Bushwick, like me. She’s unmothered, like me. In her, I see so much of myself. She said I had that shit down. That I could walk into any place like I belonged there. I said: “I had to teach myself how.”
Today I sent her a Muhammad Ali quote: “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”
I remembered how I felt at Tin House last year. I remembered how out of place I felt. I remembered that I didn’t feel that I belonged there. I thought of that so many times at my second Tin House workshop a few weeks ago. I thought about it as I stared at the ocean out my window. The Pacific crashing on the shore. The waves that started so far off the coast. The whale fin that came up off the water that last day. I knew I belonged there this year, just like I knew I belonged at AWP, just like I know my sister-friend did.
But remember what I told you: that outside gaze is a mothafucka.
While at AWP, I gave myself permission one morning to stay in bed until noon. I caught up on Grey’s Anatomy and watched a bunch of nature shows. During one show on the tundra, I learned about the arctic woolly bear moth that spends fourteen years freezing and unfreezing. It spends nearly 90% of its life frozen. It feeds voraciously during the brief summer month of June before it freezes again. Then, in its 14th summer, it weaves a silk cocoon where it morphs into a moth.
This moth lives at the edge of what is possible. It lives a stop-go life for up to fourteen years to build up the resources it needs to finally pupate into an adult moth. It takes that moth a lifetime of fourteen years to get its wings…
We can all learn something from that little moth.