*An essay a week in 2017*
After reading, discussing and picking apart Lidia Yuknavitch’s “Woven” & Christine Hyung-Oak Lee’s “Saving Chickens, Saving Myself”, I had my Writing Our Lives students finish class with the prompt: “What stories have you told yourself?” There was nervous laughter, some glares (at me, of course), one student hid her face while others avoided my eyes altogether. I welcome you to write on the stories you’ve told yourself to survive and those you still tell yourself that no longer serve you. I am writing on how I told myself for so long: “I don’t need anybody. I can do this alone.” Where did that come from? Why did I have to convince myself of this? How did I break my own heart as a result?
This is kind of how we get through our lives: we tell ourselves stories so that what’s happening becomes something we can live with. Necessary fictions. ~Lidia Yuknavitch in “Woven”
The first time I told myself that I didn’t need anybody was up in that plum tree in my backyard in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I was five or six, watching mom in her garden. I was envying the seeds and the vegetables and herbs that got a tenderness from her that was so rarely directed at me. I was sulking. I was trying to cope. I may have folded my arms over my chest and huffed a bit. I may have even pouted. Then I said, quietly so only I could hear: “So what. I don’t need her. I don’t need anybody.” I spent the next thirty years trying to convince myself that was true.
I learned solitude in that first floor apartment on Palmetto Street. I was always a brooding child. I’d climb up that tree or climb over the dilapidated wall into the junkyard next door. And if mom was keeping me inside that day, I’d build a fort in the bottom bunk by pushing the blankets into the nooks of the bunk bed.
I learned solitude again in boarding school in Massachusetts when I realized I’d never fit in and stopped trying. I found solace in literature.
I’d walk those Wellesley roads, stare at the houses with their brick and two stories, picket fences and manicured lawns; houses I’d only seen in movies and on TV until I lived there. I imagined the lives of the people that lived inside. I imagined two kids and a dog and maybe a cat and a mom and dad and their furniture and how damn happy they were.
I’d walk through the woods of the Wellesley College campus, sit by Lake Waban and watch the college girls giggle and suntan and ignore me.
So when that drug dealer from uptown Manhattan pursued me the summer before my senior year, I didn’t push him away. He was 24. I was 16. He made me feel wanted and seen, and he could do things to my body that I’d never felt. I learned an entirely different kind of solitude in the six years I was with him.
After him there were a slew of emotionally unavailable men. There was me telling myself that I didn’t need anybody. There was me attracting people, both men and women, friends and romantic interests, that I could not rely on. That didn’t show up. That had their own stories they were telling themselves that did not include me.
One of those friends was my ride or die homegirl. I haven’t written much publicly about this friendship. She was the one I went to countless happy hour events and nightclubs with. We went on vacations to Miami. I held her hair when she threw up. Carried her up the stairs when she was too drunk to make it to my fifth floor apartment. She took care of me too, in many ways. All in ways that are needed by a girl who says she doesn’t need anyone. We hurt one another more than once. We no longer speak or even check in on each other. I saw her this past summer at a reunion of sorts. I told her I missed her. She told my partner I was a ho. I realized I missed who we were and now wonder how we were ever friends. Then I remember how she punished me by denying me her love. She was so much like my mother.
One time, years ago, we were talking about relationships and sharing our lives. I confessed that I didn’t want to die alone. I wanted someone to share my life with. She rolled her eyes and said she could spend her life alone and be good. I was weak for wanting to be with someone. I believed that for a long time. She reminded me of why I’d told myself all those years before: “I don’t need nobody. I can do it alone.”
Humans are social animals. It is human to want companionship. It is human to want to share our lives.
Stuart Grassian, a board-certified psychiatrist and a former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, has interviewed hundreds of prisoners in solitary confinement. In one study, he found that roughly a third of solitary inmates were “actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal.” Grassian has since concluded that solitary can cause a specific psychiatric syndrome, characterized by hallucinations; panic attacks; overt paranoia; diminished impulse control; hypersensitivity to external stimuli; and difficulties with thinking, concentration and memory. Some inmates lose the ability to maintain a state of alertness, while others develop crippling obsessions.
“One inmate I interviewed developed some obsession with his inability to feel like his bladder was fully empty,” Grassian told FRONTLINE. “Literally, that man spent hours, hours, 24 hours a day it was on his mind, hours standing in front of the toilet trying to pee … He couldn’t do anything else except focus on that feeling.” Source: “What Does Solitary Confinement Do To Your Mind?” on PBS
People in solitary confinement go crazy. Why? Because we need human contact and interaction. We need love. We need tenderness. We need to see and be seen. I know that now. I sometimes wish I’d learned this sooner, but we all have our journey.
Who made me realize this? My brother. My daughter. My students. My partner Katia has reminded. She still reminds me.
As much as I wanted to believe that I could be alone and be okay with it, I searched out love in all the wrong places. Three years ago, already in my late thirties and deep in my grief over losing my brother, I wrote these words in my journal: “I’ve fallen for mirror images of my mother since I was 12–abusive and emotionally unavailable.” I threw the journal across the room.
There was no way to avoid looking in the mirror and seeing myself and the many ways I’d broken my own heart. How I’d attracted these people into my life. I had to hold myself accountable. Doing this does not excuse anyone’s behavior or release them of their own accountability. It just means that I can see what I did to break my own heart. It’s how I take back my own power.
I think of what a spiritual advisor told me once: “You have no power.” I have trouble with this. To accept that means that I have no way of living this life with more purpose and consciousness. To be more aware of myself and what I put out there and attract.
What I know is that I am now in a relationship where I am loved and supported in ways I never have. She shows up. She shows me she loves me. She is present and steadfast. No, we are not perfect, but we choose each other every day. We are conscious with the ways we love each other. We work to confront our shit. We hold one another accountable. We try. We are committed to us, to this family we are building. She holds me when I cry about my mother. She reminds me that I am not her. We laugh when I gasp at the realization that I sit like her and hold myself like her, my mother, this woman who constantly pushes me away, who doesn’t know how to love me.
I asked myself: What is the story behind this story?
That I am not worthy of being loved. That I am not lovable. After all , if your mother can’t love you the way you need or want, who can? What does that say about you? It says that you are not lovable. You are not worthy of being loved. You are not worthy of praise or tenderness. So you tell yourself that you don’t need anybody. That you can do it alone. Because this is easier than accepting that you aren’t worthy…
This story continues to manifest itself in my life in so many ways. I am thinking specifically about something that’s been coming up lately: I cringe when someone praises my work, my writing and teaching and the work I do. I have trouble believing it. Logically, I know what I do is important. I believe in the power of story to change the world. I teach this work with all my heart. And, yet, when someone acknowledges me and my work, I feel myself wince. I tense up. I half smile. I blush. I have to fight the urge to run.
There is a memory that lives in me. I am little, my head comes to just above my mother’s waist. My mother who is just five feet tall. We are heading to the supermarket on the corner, El Faro, the market that smelled of sour milk and decaying meat. I reach for my mother’s hand. She swats me away. Glares at me. Says: “Porque tu siempre tienes que estar encima de mi.” I don’t remember reaching for my mother’s hand after that though I never stopped staring at those hands, chubby and solid, they look perpetually swollen, just like mine.
My brother was one of the few people I could rely on when I was growing up. When he left when I was 12 (which is a story for another time), I had no reason to stay in my mother’s house. I chose to leave the right way–I went to boarding school. It was while I was away that my brother started spiraling out of control. He was arrested for stealing cars. For selling drugs. He didn’t come to my high school graduation because he’d taken a trip to Venezuela, where he swallowed two balloons of heroin. He was caught and arrested in Miami. He was sentenced in the fall of my first year at Columbia University.
He didn’t come to my college graduation because he was too hungover to pull himself out of bed.
I didn’t see my brother for most of my pregnancy. He didn’t come to my baby shower and he didn’t meet my daughter until she was three months old.
My uncle had a dinner for the family in the apartment he shared with his then wife and children. When I arrived, my mother came down to help me. You carry so much when you’re a new mom–the carriage, the diaper bag, your purse, the plastic cover for the carriage in case it rains, the bag with the bottles and formula, the breast pump. So much shit.
Mom met me in the lobby. I started unloading when she said, “Your brother is upstairs.” I felt my chest seize. I clenched my jaw. All I could say was, “No.” I started to repack my things. “Don’t do that,” she said. She put her hand on my shoulder. Her voice was soft. Pleading. I started crying.
My brother was great when he wasn’t on drugs. He was reliable and loving and encouraging. He showed up once to a panel I was on in a library in midtown east by Grand Central. He came to an open mic series I held a few years ago. When I called him to share what was going on in my life and the joy I was feeling, he always told me, “I’m proud of you, sis.” When I called him crying about some fool who had broken my heart, he told me I was worth so much more.
But when Carlos was on drugs, he was a monster. He was manipulative. He stole money. He stole furniture. A radio. A TV. He once stole an entire box of Ensure from my mother’s house and sold it for drugs.
He called my friends and asked them for money. He told them I’d hurt myself and he needed to take a cab to get to me. He sold them the metrocards I bought him, saying he had to buy milk for his son. He disappeared for weeks and months on end.
It’s difficult to admit but during his fifteen years of heroin addiction, my brother affirmed what I’d told myself since I was six up in that tree: that I didn’t want or need anyone. That I could do it all on my own.
This week I made neck bone soup. I always make soup when I’m feeling off. When I need comforting. I taught myself how to make soup a few years ago. This is a ritual I learned from my mother.
My mother is an amazing cook. Whenever people came over, my mother made these elaborate meals: soups and rices and beans and meats, that dripped with her homemade sofrito and all the love she put into them.
My mother doesn’t apologize. What she does is make me my favorite sopa de frijoles. I can’t count the times my aunt has called me to say, “Your mother sent you soup. Come get it.”
When I am feeling tender and am deep in memory, I make soup. This week I made a beef neck bone broth.
The ritual starts the day before and always includes cleaning out the fridge and cupboards as I search to see what I have and what I have to purchase.
Beef neck bone. Beef shin bone-in. Kielbasa sausage. Cilantro. Recao. Scallions. A potato. Yucca. Carrots. Calabaza. A pepper. An onion. Vegetable broth. Fresh garlic. Herbs like parsley and oregano.
At some point, during the process, I will think: We should really clean this fridge more often. and: Oh, that’s where that is. and: I was looking for that. and: We really have to stop buying shit we don’t eat.
I tell myself: I’m going to clean out the fridge more often. I never do.
I make a note of what I need and head to the market.
I love to cook for folks. I’ve had dinner parties where I bake chicken that’s sat in seasoning for two days. I make a huge caldero of arroz con fideos. I make salads and stir fry shrimp. I cut up cheese, make a plate with three different types of cheeses, fruit and crackers. We sit. We eat. We drink. We laugh. We share stories.
I learned this from my mother.
I start the soup early like a true doña. I take out the meat and clean it. I season it with herbs and spices: parsley, oregano, rosemary, thyme, comino. I mix. I add the broth and put the meat on the stove on a high flame. I make a note of how much of my family’s comino I have left. I add a bit to everything.
My aunt buys the comino seeds from the Africanas on 125th like my mom would buy it from the Africanas on Myrtle Avenue in Bushwick. She roasts the seeds with peppercorn. Then she grinds the mix in the little old school grinder that sits on the shelf over her stove. It’s wood with a handle on top which she turns to grind the seeds she puts in the contraption. What comes out is the ambrosia of the gods. A seasoning I have yet to replicate.
Mental note: get more comino from titi.
I lay out the herbs. I cut up the cilantro and recao. I add them. Next is the celery, scallions, onions and pepper. I crush several garlic cloves and add them as well.
I add the potatoes when the broth starts to boil. I’ve cut it up by now. Half into small pieces so they’ll dissolve and thicken the broth. The other half in chunks.
I cut up the sausage. Add it to the broth that is now simmering on the stove. The house smells like love.
I peel the carrots. Cut them in large pieces so they don’t completely dissolve when I put them in the soup.
I peel the yucca. It took me years but I can finally peel it in a single sleeve. When I’m done, it wraps itself into a tube, the same shape it was when it was coiled tightly around the white tuber I now cut up in chunks and put in the soup.
The calabaza is last. It cooks quickly and dissolves easily.
The story behind the story (because there’s always a story behind these kinds of stories) came to a head this week.
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEA) Creative Writing Fellowship application was due this week on March 8th. This year applications were open to prose writers. I walked around with a print out of the information for weeks. I even printed out the how-to-apply guide because this fellowship is notoriously difficult. It also may be the last year that these are available since Trump has put NEA funding on the chopping block. In other words, the grant has been a buzz in the literary community since the information on the deadline was released in December. It’s for $25K, no strings attached. For a woman like me who comes from poverty, that’s real money. That’s I-can-teach-less-and-write-more money. That’s I-can-finish-this-book money. And still, I waited until the last minute to apply. In fact, I’d already decided I wasn’t going to, then I had a dream.
I am a lucid dreamer. I’ve had dreams where I know I’m dreaming. I’ve had dreams where I have a dream inside of a dream. I’ve woken up sweating from nightmares, scared to close my eyes again because I know I’ll inevitably go right back into the dream that I ran from. The dream I had on Monday night was not one of those dreams.
My friend, R, who took his life last summer came to me in the dream. We were in a car, which makes sense because we spent so much time in his car during our friendship. In fact, he’s the one who taught me how to drive. I have a hot foot because of him. We’d get on Route 280 to get to his house in Orange, NJ and he’d say: “You do 90 on this road. Everybody does 90.”
We met when I was a girl of 17, a first year at Columbia University. He was my then boyfriend’s brother. We got close fast. Went to clubs together and hung out together, played handball and rollerbladed all over NYC together. R was the one person crazy enough to join me on my missions from uptown Manhattan to Brooklyn on rollerblades. We saw one another through so many phases in our lives. Break-ups and heartbreaks. We cried together and laughed together and shared so much together. I even introduced him to his wife. Then he betrayed me. I found out that the man I was then involved with was also sleeping with someone I considered a friend. Of course she wasn’t but when you tell yourself you don’t need anyone, that you can do it all alone, you will attract people that are not loyal. People who do things like this: sleep with someone you love. The thing is that R knew. Everyone in the crew knew but me. I was devastated. I bounced because that’s what I did back then–I ran. Our relationship was never the same.
I realized when he took his life that I hadn’t forgiven him. I didn’t cry though I felt his death deeply. See, R talked about taking his life so many times over the years. None of us thought he’d do it, but we weren’t entirely surprised when he did.
I’ve thought so much about him over the past few months. I’ve thought about who we were and how much we shared. I thought about how sad he was. I thought about how hurt and angry I was then and how I took it out on him. I finally apologized to him not too long ago. I told him I was sorry for hurting him the way I did. I was shaking when I said it but I had to: “I’m sorry. I was in a lot of pain then.” He pulled me into his arms and hugged me tight. His hugs were almost painful. Like he wanted to meld your bodies. He whispered, “I know. I love you. I wouldn’t be who I am without you.”
A few years ago doctors discovered that his depression was due to a chemical imbalance in his brain. There was nothing he could do but take meds. R refused to. He was so stubborn. And beautiful. So beautiful. He was one of the most generous people I’ve ever known. So why couldn’t I forgive him? I know now that it’s because I hadn’t (and still haven’t) forgiven myself…the young woman I was who was still telling herself: I don’t need anybody. I can do it alone.
In the dream, someone had left me a huge apartment on the top floor of a building downtown in NYC. I remember the floor to ceiling windows and the view of the city with all its lights. There was even a skylight where I could see so many stars. Stars you usually can’t see in NYC. Then I was in a car with R. I remember his sad eyes. The way he stared at me. He kept pushing a quarter into my hands. I kept giving it back but he refused. He didn’t say anything but I knew somehow that he was asking me to forgive him…to forgive myself. I woke up sobbing. The corners of my mouth pulled down into that frown I remember so clearly from when my brother died. There’s something so specific about a frown caused by grief.
It was in the shower the next morning that it came to me: that quarter, 25 cents, was a sign. The NEA is a fellowship for $25K. Oh shit!
Earlier that day, I’d posted on my FB: “I confess that I’m terrible at deadlines. Terrible. I sabotage myself with these things. I say Imma work on something then I don’t because of this and that and the other, and when the deadline passes, I tell myself that I wouldn’t have gotten said grant, residency, etc. anyway so why bother. I know this it that opportunistic mothafucka imposter syndrome. The thing is I don’t know what to do about it.”
I got a lot of supportive messages in response. Folks who offered solidarity and said “me too,” and others who pushed me lovingly to submit that NEA ap. The thing is that when I posted it, I had already resigned myself to not apply. I had convinced myself that it was too late and too difficult, that I couldn’t do and wouldn’t do it, that I wasn’t worthy. One response in particular made me sob. It was from my sister-friend Philly Walls who knows my heart so well.
I invite you to be gentler with yourself, to use gentler language for the things you want to improve upon in your art practice. Is it sabotage to make room for the love you have in your life? Is it sabotage to prioritize and do the hardest part of the equation, the writing itself? Is it sabotage to write 52 essays a year and inspire 500 writers to do the same? Is it sabotage to apply and be accepted to one of the most prestigious writing workshops in the country, with the support of so many people in the caring community you have built and help sustain? Is it sabotage to create and build the Writing Our Lives workshop that has brought many beautiful souls into the NYC and VONA community of writers? Is it sabotage to teach young people who hardly ever see themselves reflected as worthy? Is it sabotage to mother your beautiful daughter, a true gift of a young woman? What other words can you use to acknowledge that you missed a deadline, one that will surely roll around again, one in a constant bounty of deadlines? I’m asking for all of us, sis. How can we be kinder to ourselves while doing this work. How can we stop the negative loops in our heads? And please, whatever you do, stop saying mean things to my friend, the incomparable La Loba. I don’t appreciate it.
Alone by Maya Angelou
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
Can make it out here alone.
Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.
There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
Can make it out here alone.
Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.
Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
Can make it out here alone.
Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.
All of this is say that I got to work on that NEA ap. I submitted it at around 2:30am on March 8th, the day it was due. I pushed and got it in, thanks to my partner who dealt with all my crazy and my daughter who hid in her room because she knows how irritable I get when I’m anxious; who before she went to bed, hugged me and whispered in my ear: “You got this, mom.” Thanks to R and Philly Walls and my homie friends Karissa Chen and Christine Hyung-Oak Lee and Minal Hajratwala and Porochista Khakpour and so many more.
And a special thank you to Lidia Yuknavitch. That same day I wrote: “I have to say this because there’s a difference for me: I am not unmothered because my mother died. She is very much alive. She just can’t mother me because of her own trauma. And, no, I am not motherless. I have a mother. She lives in Brooklyn. I haven’t seen her in months. There is a difference between not being able to talk to or reach out to or be held by your mother because she’s gone. I can’t do that because I don’t feel safe with her. I can’t do that because she’s callous. The truth is if anyone treated me the way my mother does, there’d be hell to pay. I don’t allow people like that in my life. Not anymore. And, yes, that includes my mother. I’m not saying one is more difficult than the other. I am saying that they are different. And they both fuckin suck.”
Lidia responded: “which is why YOU are the one to put this to the page…” I later confessed to her that I was angry when I saw this. It felt heavy. It felt like so much. Too much. I got all up in my feelings. I raged: Why me? Why do I have to carry this? What the fuck, why?
I work hard on not resisting my emotions. I know they’re all there to teach you something. But it’s still hard not to wince at myself when I rage. My anger is hot and consuming and it frightens me. Still, I let myself feel it and once it subsided I was able to see that it’s up to me because it’s me who actually can do it and is already doing it and it’s time to let those stories of being unmothered out into the world. I confessed this to Lidia: “Your comment that it’s up to me to write these stories of the unmothered really hit me hard. It made me tear up. I admit that I got angry because, shit, that’s just so much. I was all up in my feelings. Then I remembered how right you are, and I kicked myself in the ass, and I sat down and started pushing. And I thought of you just after I submitted everything, and said, ‘Yes. I have to do this. I have to do it for all of us unmothered women.’ Yes, it’s a lot. And that’s why I have to do it. Thank you. I needed the reminder. Love and appreciate you so. ”
She responded: “not sorry. for making you angry (or making you tear up). i can take it — your anger — it’s part of your beauty. i won’t flinch. i love you. you got this… and yup. that’s exactly why. for the sea of women who are amongst us; for the wave that is coming.”
There’s something about someone telling you your anger is part of what makes you beautiful. I’m still working on that. That digging is for a later essay…
So what did I learn: 1. That I broke my own heart in many ways by convincing myself that I could do it alone. 2. That this was a survival mechanism, what my therapist would call a “creative adjustment”, that I came up with to help me survive what I endured in my formative years. 3. That behind this story is another story that I’ve been telling myself: that I am not worthy and am not lovable. 4. That it’s time to confront this and work on healing it, and part of healing is realizing that I can (and should) be grateful for the creative adjustment I came up with because it did in fact help me survive, but it’s now time to let it go because it’s done what it was supposed to do and now it’s causing me harm. 5. That Venus retrograde is no joke and she’s real when she pushes you to confront unresolved wounds. 6. That in spite of it all, when it comes down to it, it is up to me to get these stories out for all the unmothered women, to show them that they’re not alone and that they’re seen. It is up to me to hold up that mirror to myself and all of us. And, yes, it’s a lot, and still, I have to do it. Poco a poco. Día a día. Word.
This week was also International Women’s Day. I chose to dedicate the day to my mother, who is somewhere in Brooklyn working at a school, mothering children who aren’t her own and need her. I honor her even through the distance. Trauma takes such a toll on us, our own trauma and the intergenerational shit we carry that isn’t even ours. I know my mother is a wounded woman. I know a lot of my pain stems from her, but so does my relentlessness and my badassness and my unfuckwithableness. Thanks Mom. Signed, your youngest…
This really, really resonated with me! Yes, telling ourselves that we got this alone is not realistic nor healthy. That’s how people, I aught to know, develop depression. But like you state, it’s how we get through it… work through it… and live through it. Thank you for sharing.
Hi, My name is Sheryl Rieling and I grew up on East 8th between avenues K and L.
Your article regarding gentrification was awesome. When I go home I realize that my parents could never have afforded our house if they were purchasing today. They bought their home for $67,000 back on the late 60s. Each house now goes for 1MM +.
Thank you for taking the time to explain this to the trendy new folks who have settled in our old neighborhoods. The place is the same but the soul of the streets is different. Not better – just different, with a fresh coat of pain and higher fences.