Writing has been a struggle over these last few weeks. I’m still revving up, as I described in my last essay. I am still that race car with its burning tires and smoke and trembling body. All this revving is painful but it is what it is, as it should be…or so I’ve told myself.
The spring session of my Writing Our Lives class just ended last Saturday. I am always surprised by the mourning period that follows. The melancholy that takes over like a surprise wave that pulls me under and fills my lungs. That’s all exacerbated by the fact that it’s Mother’s Day this coming weekend.
The countdown starts in April, just after Easter. That’s when Mother’s Day everything starts, the cards, the emails, the “make this your mom’s best Mother’s Day” ads. I hunker down. I get ready for the onslaught. That’s what it feels like–an onslaught. On past Mother’s Days I’ve avoided the world. I’ve shuttered myself in. I don’t even look out the window, worried I’ll see an adult daughter like me holding her mother close. Mother is holding a bouquet of flowers and balloons, a new bracelet on her wrist… For the world, mother is altar, mother is sacred goddess, mother is everything. But what about those us for whom mother is abyss?
Facebook has this sometimes wonderful and sometimes frustrating and annoying and downright disrespectful “on this day” memory list that shows up at the top of your timeline every day. I assume it happens to everyone. It can’t just be me it comes to torture, right?
I’ve been taking note of those that have appeared in my timeline over the past few days.
Two years ago today, May 11th, I published my essay “Unmothered on Mother’s Day” with this intro: Today, the day after Mother’s Day, I was finally able to finish this essay. Maybe I just needed to feel all of it, the loss, the sadness. Maybe I needed to explain to people that this unmothered life is not an easy one and feeling this pain doesn’t negate all the beauty in my life, of which I know there is so very much. Maybe I just needed to sit here, in my messy room, flowers I bought myself to the right of me, gerber daisies and sunflowers, a picture of my brother and me to my right, to remember that though I may feel untethered sometimes, letting myself feel these emotions has made all the difference. Letting myself be vulnerable isn’t easy but it’s what I must do. As Leslie Feinberg said in Stone Butch Blues: “surrenderin is unimaginably more dangerous than struggling for survival!” But we ain’t surviving anymore, Vanessa. We’re learning how to live.
Before posting the essay, I shared excerpts as statuses:
Excerpt 1: “I’ve been trying to write this essay for days. On Mother’s Day, I woke up and ran to the park. I sat on a bench by the water. Watched as little kids skipped by innocently as children do. One kicked a soccer ball, his cleats tapping on the pavement rhythmically. A woman sat on the other side of the bench with her son, who must have been three. They blew bubbles and I watched as the child ran after them. He laughed when he poked them and they burst. One splashed in his eye, he shrieked and mom came running. She pulled him close and soothed him. I saw that child lean into his mama, his safe space, sure that momma would make the ache go away. My chest tightened.
“A pigeon pecked at the floor. White with splotches of gray on its small body, his heart hung out of its chest. A soft mound that throbbed on the pigeon’s undercarriage. I marveled at this bird who still fed, still flew, with its heart softly pounding outside of its chest. I marveled at that heart that still sustained and kept that bird alive, pulsing just beneath where it’s supposed to be housed. I wondered about that heart. How it kept going, unaware that it was exposed and raw. It did what hearts do—it beat, it lived, it thrived.” ~excerpt from “Unmothered on Mother’s Day”
Later, when I was reading Nayyirah Waheed’s poetry collection “Salt,” I thought of this bird when I came across this poem: “in our own ways we all break. it is okay to hold your heart outside of your body for days. months. years. at a time. – heal”
Excerpt 2: “I know I am fierce and relentless. I know that I give my entire heart to everything I do; all the students I work with and have guided through the years. I am proud of the life I’ve created for myself. I also know that this pain of being unmothered is real and there will be times, like on Mother’s Day and the days leading up to it, that despite all my accomplishments and all the love I have in my life, that first wound will sting especially hard and I will feel untethered and unanchored in the world. I will feel distraught. I will feel like I’m not enough. I will be terrified of repeating that cycle, of failing my daughter. This has always been so; this fear, this suffering. And letting myself feel it when it comes does not negate the rest. It just is.” ~excerpt from essay tentatively titled “Unmothered on this Mother’s Day”
More statuses from that day:
I asked the universe, “And what of us who are not mothered? Whose mothers are incapable of mothering us?” The universe sent me Nayyirah Waheed’s “birth lessons”…
cruel mothers are still mothers.
they make us wars.
they make us revolution.
they teach us the truth, early.
mothers are humans. who
sometimes give birth to their pain.
instead of children.
Other “On this day” memories that have shown up this week include:
May 8th 2012: Memoir: a desperate attempt to chew yesterdays into smaller morsels easier to chew & get over…
May 7th, 2016:
I’ve cried quite a bit over these past few weeks. I’ve cried for the girl I was, for my mother, for my students, for this healing.
Last night, during the full moon, when my daughter and partner were asleep and the house was quiet, I sat down in my writing room, surrounded by my books and pictures and the collage I created on Tuesday with my junior writers, the room lit by the string of lights that surround it’s circumference at the top. I didn’t want to write or, rather, I didn’t feel like the writing would cooperate. It hasn’t been over these few weeks, or rather, it hasn’t gone the way I’ve wanted it to. We so often think we’re the ones in charge of our creativity when so often it’s the opposite–we are servants to it most, if not all, of the time. Still, I sat. I put on Pandora’s The Winter Radio, dabbed my wrist, neck and third eye with the Writers potion my brujermana Lizz gifted me. I burned palo santo, lit a candle and I started typing.
One of my students sent me Chani Nichol’s newsletter titled “Truth and Transformation: Today’s Full Moon in Scorpio.” In it, she writes:
Nothing about our lives or about this world will ever change without our willingness to be relentlessly honest. Especially about our past. Especially about our present. Especially when accepting the truth means that it’s time to let something go.
A hope. A fear. A fantasy. Whatever it is, Wednesday’s full moon at 20° of Scorpio at 2:42pm PT is asking us all to be relentlessly honest about it…
Later Nichols writes: “Scorpio will drag you.”
And that’s so much of how I’ve been feeling these past few weeks: like I’m being dragged. What I’ve realized this week is that it’s not that at all, it’s that I’m shifting, and changes so big require an unraveling. I did say I was a revving race car, right. That kind of shaking hurts.
I have been carrying this unmothered wound for so long. I will always carry it. But as Mother’s Day approaches, I have been thinking about how I can reinvent myself. Reinvent how I exist in it and with it. How can I take my power back?
On April 28th, I wrote: When I write about being unmothered, when I say it’s a journey to navigate this reality, that sometimes it digs in and doesn’t let go, that I dread Mother’s Day and the cards and balloons and ads, it’s not that I don’t know that I’m blessed, it’s not that I can’t celebrate the mother I am that mothers in resistance to how I was mothered, it’s that this pain and this joy can exist in the same place at the same time. Life isn’t black and white like some of you think, fam. And ignoring the hurt of it won’t make it go away. The best antidote that I’ve found so far, is facing it and writing about it and dissecting it and getting to know this heart of mine and how it beats and how it’s triggered and how it, no matter what, holds on relentlessly to hope and faith and all that is good. This is what I know today. This is where love lives.
On May 1st I wrote: Today I described my sadness as a fog that rolls in and out. Always there, waiting off the shore for the right conditions to thicken so it can roll back in. I’m sharing this because I know so many who are not okay. We’re told to get over it, move on, work through it, do this, do that, but the thing is that we do. I go for hikes. I work out. I throw on the gloves and punch and kick the air. I grab the weights. I eat well. I read. I write. I go to therapy. And, guess what? The sadness is still there. I’m not asking for advice. I am holding up my mirror. This is my reflection. Look at yours.
Earlier this week I wrote: It is Mother’s Day this weekend. Sending love to those of us holding our breaths, sighing deep, squeezing our eyes tightly shut against the barrage of ads and balloons and cards. I see your soft hearts and hear your crushed whimpers. Know that you aren’t alone in this. Know that the mother myth is just that, a myth. Know that you are a warrior for having survived your mother. Know that though the world doesn’t understand you, I do. And I honor you and all your beautiful scars and tears. Thank you for reminding me that this too I’ve survived, and though holidays like these push and twist the thorn in my side that is the mother wound, I am doing what I can to push back and live and love in resistance. And some days, that is enough.
For the past several Mother’s Days, I’ve opted to avoid the world, the balloons and cards and folks dressed in pastels holding mama’s hand and glorifying her. This Sunday, I’ve decided to not do that for reasons I’m still finding words for but they include celebrating myself as a mother and my mothering in resistance. I can feel my unmothered wound and still celebrate. The thing is I’m still figuring out what that means…this is a step.
Over the past few weeks I’ve started several lists and essays.
A list of things I didn’t learn because I was unmothered. The first item was: how to have relationships with women… I had to teach myself that.
I have started a list of things said to me about my being unmothered by people who don’t get the profundity of the wound or just don’t want to understand. It’s more absurd and insulting and triggering than you can imagine. The first item: “You have only one mother. You need to love her.”
I started a list of times I’ve dealt with toxic masculinity and male fragility, prompted by a friend’s post about these topics where a guy came on to say “not all men” and accused my friend of being divisive and being a part of the problem because heaven forbid a woman actually take men to task for their problematic behavior. It starts:
When: early 2000s
Where: club in NYC
I walked by a guy in a crowded club. He grabbed my arm. I pulled away and kept walking. Next thing I knew, his entire drink was on my back.
That list is several pages long.
I started an essay on rage, how anger is a form of anxiety–the fight in the fight or flight response. I’m chronicling this research I’m doing on anger and what it’s helped me understand about myself. How trauma exists in the body…
I started an essay on my shifting role as a mother, now that my daughter is months shy of 13 and doesn’t want to be with me all the time like she used to. How triggering this particular stage is for me because I left my mother’s house when I was 13 and never returned. The reality that I don’t really have a model of a mother-daughter relationship to go by.
I’ve told myself I haven’t been writing but I have. I just haven’t been finishing and that is okay too. This is my process. I go through months of being extremely prolific, then periods of seeming drought that aren’t really droughts. I am revving up. Today I was reminded.
May 28th is the 7th anniversary of when I quit my job to live this writing and teaching life. What is it about the seven year itch? I’ve been feeling drained. Exhausted. Bone tired. I’ve questioned what I’m doing in my teaching. I’ve wondered if this life is for me. If perhaps it is time to take a bold move like I did in 2010, so I made moves to do exactly that. I resigned from some of my steady teaching artist gigs. I said that this was my last semester teaching.
Then two weeks ago, I started working with my juniors. It was the first day of the college writing class where I introduce them to the college application essay and take them through the journey of writing a draft before they leave for the summer. I was rethinking my approach and decided to reinvent it: I introduced them to the topic of identity via the paintings of Frida Kahlo. I discussed how Kahlo’s identity influences her work: her identity as a mestiza, as a disabled woman and artist, as a queer woman, as the wife of muralist Diego Rivera, etc. I guided them through the process of critical analysis. Their faces lit up as they picked apart some of Kahlo’s iconic paintings. They made the connection to their own identities, and how the goal of the essay is to express a piece of their identities via words. I teared up as I watched them do group work, each group with a specific painting to analyze. I felt torn as I headed home. I remembered that I love this work I do, that it’s important and necessary. So what does that mean? I thought. I sat on it for a few days and came to this: it’s a break I need, not to quit.
So that’s what I’m doing: taking a sabbatical over the next year. I am listening to the universe’s call to “go where your heart is…” I am taking some time off from some of my teaching to focus on developing my Writing Our Lives Workshop and, yes, bringing it online. I am going where my heart is. I love this work and am forever grateful that this class came into the world through me. It’s time to expand it, and to do that I need time and space so that means less teaching for a year, and more Writing Our Lives.
I also need to finish my memoir “A Dim Capacity for Wings.” I need to get this book out of me. I need to write it the best way I can, and to do so, I have to sit with it and be with it, and that requires time. I am gifting myself time.
Sometimes you have to dare, you have to risk to make this life happen. I am blessed to be able to do that.
I’ve found some incredible hiking trails in my new neighborhood. There are paths that go for miles, paralleling the Hudson River. Each day, I hike further and discover new paths and sights. Last week, the woods called me early, before 7am early, and I acquiesced. I hiked and explored further, five miles of hills and trees and chipmunks and birds of various species and sizes, some I can name and some I cannot. But when I came upon this tree, I was stunned into silence and gratitude.
I touched her and said thank you. Here she is, sheathed in half, internal bark exposed, she is scarred but she still blossoms and gives us oxygen and shade, and so much beauty. Gracias arbol maravilloso, for reminding me that we can continue to thrive and grow and give life and serve, even with our scars and pieces of ourselves missing…& perhaps this is what gives us the fuerza to keep doing it all–not unscathed but still fierce.