Relentless Files — Week 61 (#52essays2017 Week 8)

*An essay a week in 2017*

Yesterday I saw a video of a whale caught in a fishing net. A boat approaches. They think the humpback is dead. He begins to move. A last ditch effort to save its own life. The people on the boat radio for help. They know the whale won’t make it until help arrives. They must be the help. They begin to cut away at the net with what they have on the boat–a small knife. They cut and cut. The whale begins to move. He is still tangled. They keep cutting. Suddenly the whale gets free. For the next hour it dives and jumps out of the water. It slaps its enormous tail on the water. It hurls its body above the water and splashes back down into the depths. This is its freedom dance.


On Wednesday, in my high school fiction class, we started reading Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath. I got the students, three boys and five girls, to talk about people who have inspired them, like the protagonist Juliet is inspired by Harlowe. I ask: “Have you ever had someone make that big an impression on you? They go around sharing.


One boy says he has no big inspirations. I know him to be a huge comic book fan. He’s a burly fourteen year old with kind eyes and a big heart who is often biting with his jokes. He’s awkward. He’s been bullied. His humor can sometimes sting. I’ve had to remind myself that he is just learning how to be a brown man in this world. The world has already tried to crush him.

I ask: “Well, who introduced you to comic books.”

He smiles with no teeth. Says: “No one did.” Then he shakes his head. “No, my dad did but not through comic books. He introduced me to super heroes. He gave me a whole bunch when I was like five or six. He wanted to see which ones I liked.” I smile. Lean in closer. “And a few years later, I learned that comic books tell the stories of those super heroes.”

“And you were hooked,” I finish for him.

“Yes.” He smiles again. This time he shows teeth.

I move on to a senior I’ve known since she was a ninth grader. Before she went natural and now dons a head of tight brownish blonde curls. She looks at me and smiles with her whole face. “You,” she says and starts to turn the pages of her homemade journal. She folds white papers in half, staples them, seals the cover with clear packing tape. I imagine she has stacks of these at home. “I quote you all the time,” she says. “Last week, you told me…let me see.” She flips through the pages. I see lines of poetry. The beginnings of stories. Anecdotes. Musings about her day. Quotes from the many books she reads, some that I’ve suggested. She’s always reading. She stops on a page. Scans it with her index finger. “Last week I told you something shifted in me. I told you I think I’m more than a poet. You said, and I quote: ‘I’ve been waiting for you to see that. You’re a storyteller.’” She looks at me. Her eyes are welling. I blink hard. I can’t hide the heat in my face. I am all the colors.

“You’re the first person to tell me I’m a writer. To make me believe that I can make a life out of words.” I give her a high five.

I will hug her later. Tell her that I love her. Tell her that I believe in her. She is going to Smith in the fall on full scholarship. She is going to major in creative writing. I tell her: “You are light years ahead of where I was at your age. Just keep doing the work. Keep writing and pushing yourself. You got this.”


Later that evening, I cried at a comic shop after hugging and congratulating my sister friend homie Gabby Rivera on her first comic book outing, America #1, published by Marvel. There was a line out of the door for her signing, yo!

On Tuesday evening I went to a screening at the UN of the documentary AfroLatinos: The Untaught Story written by my Comadre Iyawó Alicia Anabel Santos, produced by Renzo Devia. The room was packed!


It hit me in the back of the comic shop on Fulton how very proud I am of these two glorious women who mean so very much to me and are amongst the best humans I’ve known. To say that I am proud does not suffice. I was moved to big fat tears, and just as I was about to apologize, I remembered what Lidia Yuknavitch said during workshop at Tin House: “Never apologize for your tears. My Lithuanian grandmother used to say that crying was the only language she trusted because it was the language of the body.”

I think of the inscription Gabby wrote in my copy of her novel: “We are the revolution.” Indeed.


I have a hard time accepting compliments. I have a hard time hearing that I have inspired and motivated and been an integral part of someone’s journey. I have seen these two talented women grow and evolve. We have gone through changes together. There were moments where it was too much to be in each other’s lives, so we weren’t. And then we came back. We’ve shared joy and tears. We’ve shared writing and stories. We’ve sat in classes together. We’ve workshopped each other’s work. They’ve both participated in my Writing Our Lives Workshops.

I tremble as I write this. I want to explain that I’m not taking credit for their accomplishments. I am acknowledging that we have been part of each other’s journeys. I want to say that I don’t know if I’d be where I am had I not met and loved them. I want you to know how much they feed and inspire me; that they are integral parts of my life and my evolution.

I remember when Iyawó told me she Renzo had invited her to tour Latin America and the Caribbean to work on the documentary. I remember when she started preparing for the months on the road and when she left. I talked to her from so many places across the globe. Me here in NYC, being a single mom, working and writing and trying to build a life for myself. Her in Haiti and DR and Brazil and Colombia and Honduras and…

I remember when Gabby told me about this book she was writing. I remember when she shared that Juliet came to her in my first Writing Our Lives class, in the petri dish class. I’ve often thought that that class was a failure. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was still figuring it all out. You learn so much in the journey…


In her essay collection Create Dangerously, Edwidge Danticat writes: “All artists, writers among them, have several stories — one might call them creation myths — that haunt and obsess them.”


Imposter syndrome has been sinking its claws deep into me this week. It’s nothing new. The feelings of unworthiness have walked with me for most of my life. If I look at the root of it, at where it comes from, I know it comes from my mother. Here’s the thing: a part of me feels guilt over this, over this writing I’ve done about my mother, over calling myself unmothered, over not being able to tell people that I have a great relationship with my mom, that she is my foundation and my church, that all things go back to the altar of la madre.

We texted a few days ago. It ended like it usually does: I am left reeling and questioning and wondering: if so many people love me, why can’t you? Why can’t you love me, mom? Why?

I am tired of feeling that. This shit is exhausting…and yet, here I am. Writing it. Again.


In her forecast for this week’s Venus retrograde, Chani Nicholas writes for Sagittarius:

Get to know what you are capable of. Don’t back down from it. Refuse to diminish it. Own it without arrogance, but with an unwavering acknowledgement of its magnificence.

Consider all that you have learned about your creative, erotic energy over the past 8 years. Which love affairs were your greatest teachers then? What did you learn from them? How have you healed? How do you approach this aspect of your life differently now? What were you learning about your creative energy then? What projects were your biggest teachers? How did you approach them then? How do you approach your creative work now?

The last two weeks of Venus’s retrograde ask you to sink deep below the surface of things. They get to the root of why you feel worthy and unworthy. Desirable and undesirable. Connected and disconnected. They scour the base of your energetic reservoirs, your creative wells, your oceans of imagination for clues as to what may have entered your streams of consciousness, telling you that you aren’t what you are. They ask you to heal the old wounds. Flush out the poisons from childhood. Cleanse the systems that were put in place by familial patterns so that you can better honor the gifts that you have received from the gods.


Over the past two days, I’ve found found myself searching for unmothered womyn like me. I’ve searched their names, their stories, their poems. I’ve been looking to feel less alone in the world. I need to see words like mine. Words that dare to speak our truths about our mothers. Words that chip away at the mother myth with a sledgehammer.

I reached out to folks on FB: Emily Dickinson’s poem Chrysallis inspired the title of my memoir. My sister friend Elisabet told me the other day that Dickinson was very much unmothered like us. I did not know this. There’s something about knowing I’m not alone in this that has gifted me much solace. All this is to say that I want to know more about Dickinson’s relationship with her mother. And if there’s any other unmothered woman writer that you think I should know and read, please do share. Yes this is me searching for roots. I am willing to be vulnerable and share that. There is no shame in our wounds.

In my research, I discovered that I am indeed not alone. There is nothing like learning that you are not alone in your ghosts and obsessions…

In a letter to her mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson wrote: “Could you tell me what home is. I never had a mother. I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled.” Source: Classic Lit 

Virginia Woolf’s mother died when she was thirteen years old. She writes in her autobiographical fragments Moments of Being: “Until I was in [my] forties”—until she’d written To the Lighthouse—“the presence of my mother obsessed me. I could hear her voice, see her, imagine what she would do or say as I went about my day’s doings. She was one of the invisible presences who after all play so important a part in every life.”…

And once it was written, Woolf noticed, “I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.” Why? The question haunted Woolf. “Why, because I described her and my feeling for her in that book, should my vision of her and my feeling for her become so much dimmer and weaker? Perhaps one of these days I shall hit on the reason.” Source: The Day Virginia Woolf Brought Her Mom Back to Life

Woolf would later call her mother’s death “the greatest disaster that could happen.”

A friend sent me an article that dares to posit that Sylvia Plath’s most famous poem,  “Daddy,” was about her mother.

Her hatred of Aurelia Plath is an ongoing obsession, which she examines from every angle. Her journals describe a moment with a psychiatrist she is seeing in London:

Ever since Wednesday I have been feeling like a ‘new person.’ Like a shot of brandy went home, a sniff of cocaine, hit me where I live and I am alive and so-there. Better than shock treatment: ‘I give you permission to hate your mother.’

‘I hate her, doctor.’ So I feel terrific. In a smarmy matriarchy of togetherness it is hard to get a sanction to hate one’s mother. … 

But although it makes me feel good as hell to express my hostility for my mother, frees me from the Panic Bird on my heart and my typewriter (why?) I can’t go though life calling RB up from Paris, London, the wilds of Maine long-distance: “Doctor, can I still hate my mother?’ ‘Of course you can: hate her hate her hate her.’ ”

“Daddy” is remarkable for its startling rage, its mad fury. One critic described it as “assault and battery.” But if one delves into Plath’s violent or murderous fantasies over time, they seem to be centered around her mother, rather than her father. For instance she wrote a short story, “Tongues of Stone,” in 1955 about a girl who wants to strangle her mother, and throughout her life, she reports dreams or visions like one of her mother with her eyes cut out, and another of biting her mother’s arm. In her journals she writes succinctly: “An almost exact description of my feelings and reasons for suicide: a transferred murderous impulse from my mother onto myself.”

She writes again and again in her journals about banging up against her mother as a constant impediment to her work, her happiness. “Nothing I do … can change her way of being with me which I experience as a total absence of love.”


They call us unmothered. There are those who are unmothered because their mothers died. Then there are those like me, whose mothers are alive and still don’t mother us.

Merriam-Webster’s defined unmothered as: deprived of a mother: motherless <adolescent gosling that, unmothered, attached itself to him — Della Lutes> takes you straight to the various definitions of “mother” as if unmothered couldn’t possibly exist. As if nature would not allow that. God wouldn’t. The universe wouldn’t. And yet, I exist—an unmothered woman. ~excerpt from “They Call Her Saint”, A Dim Capacity for Wings, a memoir by Vanessa Mártir


I remember finding the term unmothered and how shocked I was by it. More than anything I was shocked by the realization that I wasn’t alone in my suffering and there were other people out there like me, who walked unanchored in this life. I wanted to read more work by and for us. I’ve searched high and low for it. I’ve reached out to mentors and friends for suggestions and recommendations. What has this made me realize? That I want to, have to, will one day compile an anthology of work by and for us unmothered women. An anthology of poetry and fiction and essays. I will create this for womyn like me to see that they’re not alone. That we see them. That there is refuge. There is something about seeing yourself in literature that is so profound and comforting. This is also true for the unmothered who have been living with the mother myth for so long, who have been told “solo hay una madre,” who have seen people gasp and clutch their pearls when they dare to speak of their mothers honestly, to show that she is not what the myth said, she wasn’t loving, she wasn’t kind, she broke you in so many ways… And here we are picking up the pieces. Let me show you how this shard glints in the moonlight. Let me hold up that mirror, sis. Let me show you what solidarity looks like…


In his essay “Finding Abigail” Chris Abani writes: “Ghosts leave their vestigial traces all over your work. Once they have decided to haunt you, that is. These ectoplasmic moments litter your work for years. They are both the veil and the revelation, the thing that leads you to the cusp of the transformational.”


To be clear, there is no pride in me saying I am unmothered. This is a wound I walk with. I just decided that there is no shame in it either. This is my truth. This is me coming to terms with my existence. This is me seeing you. This is me telling you that for far too long we have carried this, telling ourselves that there must be something wrong with us because how could a mother not want to mother and be tender to her child? Mother is earth. Mother is the world. And to say that mother is wrong or incapable is to say that the world is wrong and incapable, and how could that be? It can’t…right? Wrong. There is nothing wrong with you now as there was nothing wrong with you then, when you saw your mother sneer at you, hatred pulling at the corners of her eyes. This was her pain. This was her trauma. That is not yours. You, I, we are worthy of love. We are lovable. It has been a journey to see that and own it. And some days I still struggle to see it and be it. But today you saw me. You said, yes. You said, me too. This healing ain’t easy but you must name your ghosts before you can tackle them. Mother is not the enemy. She just is what the world made her. What are you going to do with that unmothered wound? Me? Imma make art and I’m gonna love and Imma mother in resistance to how I was mothered. This is what I have and it is everything.



Kintsugi (“golden joinery”) or kintsukuroi (“golden repair”) is the centuries-old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Beautiful seams of gold glint in the cracks of ceramic ware, giving a unique appearance to the piece. This repair method celebrates the artifact’s unique history by emphasizing the fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. Kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing the artifact with new life. Kintsugi art dates back to the late 15th century, making it more than 500 years old. It is related to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which calls for finding beauty in the flawed or imperfect. The repair method was also born from the Japanese feeling of mottainai, which expresses regret when something is wasted. Source: My Modern Met


I started therapy a year ago. My first words to him were: “I am an unmothered woman.” I am still in therapy, still digging into that wound. What I’ve come to is this: there are people who have mothered me in ways my mother couldn’t and still can’t. I am grateful for those surrogate mothers every single day. I had my Millie and I had my brother and so many others who reminded me that I am loved and lovable. They taught me that I can be different. That I can use these scars to make something beautiful out of this life I was given, that I have made. And, no, I didn’t do it alone. And, yes, I can stop the cycle. And there is also the bittersweet realization that I wouldn’t be who I am nor would I be able to do what I do, see you and be with you and be the mother and writer and teacher and student that I am, had I been mothered. See, it’s true in many ways que solo hay una madre, and that’s why I am still wounded by this truth of being unmothered. So the decision is: be broken by it or let it be my fuel. I didn’t know that I made the decision when I left at 13 and didn’t look back. I didn’t have the language then but shit, that girl somehow knew she had to save her own life. I’ve been doing it ever since. Even when I fucked up. Even when I repeated the “love me, please love me” cycle I learned from my mother. I was then and now still trying to save my own life. I was trying to see the glint of the moon in these shards. Today I want to say thank you to that 13 year old Vanessa. You are my hero, nena. You be the illest.



I have family on my FB friends list who don’t get why I write what I write or why I do the work I do. I see you. You’ve had a different experience with my mother or you don’t want to look at your own wounds or you’d rather I stay silent because you’re more interested in protecting the family name and keeping these secrets that don’t protect any us. I get it in many ways. I still won’t be silent. Don’t ask me to be. I’ve thought this through. I know I may hurt some people in my journey to heal and free myself of these ghosts. Yes, I think it’s worth all of it. Why? Because the cycle stops here. It has to. Silence already killed my brother. There can be no more casualties.


A little a while ago, as if to remind me again, a post came across my FB. The article starts: “How did Marcia Butler, the distinguished oboist, save herself from a detached, withholding mother and a sexually abusive father?… But Marcia was also hooked on trying to understand her mother. ‘I cobbled together weekly rituals through which I might pretend to be close to her and imaginatively pierce her thick veneer,’ she writes.”

So many of us are broken by our wounds. Some of us have somehow found a way to overcome and be fed by them. This is one story. I am writing mine.

[Woolf] was shocked by her [mother’s] death, but then again Woolf believed it was her “shock-receiving capacity” that “makes me a writer.” She thought the productive thing to do with a shock was to “make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together.” The Day Virginia Woolf Brought Her Mom Back to Life


  1. ‘I need to see words like mine. Words that dare to speak our truths about our mothers.’ Vanessa, I find your blog so inspiring especially in that I can relate to so many of the issues you write about despite living on the other side of the world. Your essays about being unmothered spoke to me and pushed me to be brave and publish my experiences as a British Asian coping with male privilege and discrimination against daughters. It was difficult but the post has been picked up by wordpress Discover & has reached lots of people who may have struggled through the same. Thank you for doing what you do, you have no idea how many people you are an inspiration for. ❤❤

  2. Hi, Vanessa. You are definitely not alone in being unmothered. I’ve been reading your essays here for over a year because I connect so deeply with your experience, although the details of my own are different in many ways. I’m an adoptee twice unmothered, by my adoptive mother and my birth mother. No, you are not alone, not at all. There are many of us, unmothered for various reasons. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend Dani Shapiro’s book Devotion. A good deal of it focuses on her relationship with her father, but she also delves into her emotional abandonment by her mother. Thank you for all that you do.

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