I taught myself how to make soup a few years ago. I was well into my 30s and already a mom. I wanted to make soup the way my mother did, rich with herbs and tubers and the love she didn’t know how to give me. I’ve mastered chicken soup and beef neck bone soup. I’m working on others.
This morning I made a caldero of sopa de pollo. I didn’t know I was going to make it until I was in the market for something else and my stomach started turning with anxiety. I saw the yucca and cilantro and thought: “That’s what I need–soup!” This is how I mother myself.
This is what we unmothered woman must learn to do for ourselves. Call it cooking. Call it revolution. I call it saving, because I’ve been saving my own life since I was 13. This soup making is part of the journey.
Last Friday I had a traumatic event on the train. I dealt with near crippling anxiety all weekend, but I pushed through. That night I went to a birthday dinner for my partner’s mom. Saturday I stayed home and wrote. I’m a writer, this is how I process.
Sunday there was a house music festival (Soul Summit) at Coney Island and my partner really wanted me to go and my daughter really wanted to go, so I pushed through and I went. Thank God I did.
We were swaying our bodies while taking in the breeze and the music and watching the dancers in the center of the circle. You know those dancers, right? The ones who take over every dance floor they’re on. The ones who know how to move their bodies to the beat. Who kick and swing arms and smile and werk. My lawd, do they werk. I watched my daughter as she watched the dancers. I watched her eyes, her smile, her oh my god. I know that expression well. She was longing to be in that circle.
Baby girl has been in dance classes since she was three. She was that baby who did circles on her butt before she could walk. There’s something about music that lights her up.
Once, when she was one and a half, we were at a bbq. I was having trouble putting her to sleep because she’s always loved to be in the mix. She’d fight sleep to stay up and watch and giggle. My friend took her out of my arms and started rocking her to sleep. Baby girl was lolling off when her favorite song came on–Music Makes You Lose Control by Missy Elliot. She popped up, put one arm up and started thumping in rhythm to the music. This has always been her. So I knew what she wanted as she watched those dancers doing their thing in the middle of the circle.
I nudged her. “G’head, mama.”
She shook her head. “I can’t do that.”
I reminded her that she’s performed in front of hundreds of people. “You danced in Radio City Music Hall just a few months ago,” I said.
“I’m scared,” she replied, without taking her eyes off the dancers.
“Ok, that’s different, right?” She nodded and looked at me. “It’s okay to be scared, mama. What do we do with fear?”
She looked back at the circle. There was a woman swinging her arms, twirling her body. “You face it and overcome it,” baby girl responded.
“That’s right,” I said.
She kept watching with this longing expression that soon turned to determination. A little while later, she went into that circle and wowed us all. There’s a video of her doing her thing. She vogued, she Milly rocked, she even incorporated a boxing move into her improvised performance. And she ended in a split that made people holler and high five her. That video has garnered 400 likes and dozens of comments.
I was a proud mama in that moment, and I was also heartbroken.
See, while at Coney Island, I found out via FB that my sister had a graduation/18th birthday/going away party for her daughter, my niece, who is going away to the Air Force in a few days. My entire family was there. Everyone. My mom, aunt, grandmother, uncle, nephews. The babies. Everyone except me and my daughter.
My sister stopped talking to me in December. On Christmas Day to be exact. The argument started with a text about one thing and ended up about another: my writing. She called me toxic. Said I don’t think about how my writing affects people. She told me what I do is shit and everyone who follows me is shit. She hasn’t spoken to me since. She’s doing what my mother has done for much of my life–punish me by denying me her love.
So while I was watching my daughter shine, I was also holding my heart. No one can break your heart the way family can. And no one can bring you back to life the way they can too…the way my daughter did. In that moment, and since then, I’ve been watching this girl I raised. Her bravery. Her willingness to do something that terrifies her. Her focus on doing what makes her happy. I taught her that. On Sunday, she reminded me.
That night I wrote: What I know: you can be overjoyed and heartbroken at the same moment, in the same space. This is the magic and the sorrow of being alive.
the hard season
split you through.
do not worry.
you will bleed water.
do not worry.
this is grief.
your face will fall out and
down your skin
there will be scorching.
but do not worry.
keep speaking the years from
their hiding places.
keep coughing up smoke
from all the deaths you have
keep the rage tender.
because the soft season will
it will come.
both hands in your chest.
up all night.
up all of the nights.
to drink all damage into love.
from Salt. by nayyirah waheed
On Monday morning, I sat with all this love and devastation. I stared at the computer screen. I was hurt. I was inspired. I knew I had to do something with all of it. That’s when I saw the call for essays by women of color by a writer I admire. She needed two essays for this anthology she’s editing. I went in.
I’ve been working on this essay about being molested and sexually assaulted for seven years. I haven’t had the audacity to submit it though. It’s my most vulnerable piece. I’m not one to stray away from writing the difficult, so this is a huge statement, but I know it’s true. In the essay I write about my mother’s rape and how I held the secret of what’s happened to me because of what happened to my mother. I’ve been silent trying to protect everyone but me. On Monday I sat with the reality that none of these silences has protected anyone, especially not me. Silence killed my brother.
So I brought that essay out and I started working on it. Cutting words and moving sentences. Deleting entire paragraphs. I read it out loud a few times. I put all my rage and love into that piece, and I pressed submit. The following day I learned that of the hundred essays that were submitted, mine was one of two chosen. I was overjoyed, and proud of myself for doing something with my pain.
On Wednesday I got the editor’s suggested edits. I loved what she did with my piece. How she moved paragraphs around to make it more powerful. How she kept all my words and honored my story. On Friday, I was in a super proud place.
I wrote a status on FB:
Today I’m reminded that yes, it’s true we’re often more afraid of our success than we are our failure. I responded to the edits I got on an essay that’s been accepted to a huge anthology. Huge as in the editor is huge and generous and supportive of me beyond words. Huge as in this is what I’ve been working towards. Huge as in this is perfect timing as I’m finishing my memoir and sitting with these stories and this work I’ve done and this name I’ve built for myself. Huge as in typing “this name I’ve built for myself” made me pause as I heard the familiar voice in my head whisper: “who the fuck do you think you are?” Huge as in I can roar back “I am Vanessa Mártir, carajo”, and believe it. And I have this other commissioned essay I’m chipping away at. And I have these Writing Our Lives classes and workshops I’m planning for the fall. And I’m bringing these classes online. And I have folks in my inbox excitedly signing up for classes I have yet to post dates on. And I have this coming and that coming, and this in the works and that on the check list. And I have this drive and this wow and this oh shit, this is really happening. Let me tell you something, no matter where you are in your career and your writing and your teaching and whatever it is you’re aspiring towards, I hope you have these moments where you ask yourself: “Yo, whose life is this?” And I hope that in those moments you also have the reminders that YOU did this. YOU YOU YOU! You grinded, you sacrificed, you lost sleep, you risked, you pushed past all your fears and doubts and worries to make this shit happen. And I hope you have folks in your corner to remind you and hold you down and pat you on the back and toast with you. In other words, I hope you have love, especially self-love, the best and most hard won kind. Word.
And then today, I woke up with anxiety. Because, one day you’re squealing and joyous about that essay you just sent the edits back on and all these moves you’re making and how this is the life you’ve been working towards. And the next day you’re like: “what the fuck did I just do?” when you think about what you shared in that essay, your most vulnerable piece yet which says a lot considering you don’t stray away from writing the hard shit. Vulnerability hangover is very real, and I know I had to take care of myself through it…but I didn’t know exactly what I needed.
I know that I was licking my wounds. I know that I was and still am processing all this pain and joy and achievement and heartbreak. I felt all of it in my belly, where I carry my anxiety. It was in the market that it hit me: soup, make yourself soup.
I made a huge caldero. Like the kind my mom makes when she doesn’t know how to say I love you and I’m sorry. This is how I mother myself back to wholeness.
My homeboy came over the other day and as we sat out on my deck, sipping whiskey and talking life, he said he wanted me to get over this story I have that I’m not enough and I’m not this or that. I could hear him and hold space for him because I know he loves me and is trying to look out for me. I told him I’m not holding on to anything. See, writing about your wounds doesn’t mean you’re holding on to them. Most people won’t get that. My boy doesn’t get that. I reminded him that he doesn’t know what it’s like to navigate the world without his mother. I told him that this writing has helped me work through and heal and keep healing. I wasn’t mad or offended or resentful. I’m still not. I told him, “I’m good”, and I believed that to be true. Not everyone will understand my healing journey. And that’s okay. It’s mine. And I will defend it and myself tooth and nail.
This week I came upon an article on grief that I just had to go back and read to remind myself.
The natural course of grief, as in the rest of nature, is contraction-expansion-contraction-expansion-contraction-expansion—perhaps endlessly.
Our emotions move within us, through us, and between us.
Disintegration comes first. Reintegration follows.
A contraction allows an expansion.
This is the wisdom of the universe, the wisdom of your body, the wisdom of your heart.
I’m remembering something my brother said to me over those last three months we spent together before he died. “I’m worried that when I die, our family’s gonna fall apart. That you and mom and Dee won’t talk again.” I shook my head and told him “that won’t happen.” The thing is that though I said that to my brother, I new that was a real possibility. And it’s happened. And there’s nothing I can do about that. Can you imagine how helpless that makes me feel?
But then I think about this Humans in New York story I came across this week:
My older brother was my hero growing up. Everyone called him ‘Jise.’ He was this hip-hop dude. People loved him, especially the girls. Everyone knew when he walked into a room. I was the opposite. I blended into the crowd. I was quiet. I made straight A’s. I liked comic books and action figures. So I always looked up to him. He was murdered one night in 1989. Somebody shot him. I was fifteen at the time, and I just kind of gave up. I thought our family was cursed. I always had this feeling that I was up next. So it was like, ‘What’s the point of being good?’ I dropped out of school. I started hanging out with the wrong crowd. We started robbing people. I never actually took anything myself. I just tagged along for the adrenaline high. Even at my lowest, part of me was always the same good kid. I always held down a job. I wrote poetry. I kept dream journals. Whenever we were getting into trouble, my friends would always tease me. They’d say: ‘This isn’t you, man. Why are you here?’ Hip-hop saved me. It gave me a voice. I started doing open mic nights. I took all those dream journals and turned them into lyrics. I joined a group called The Arsonists. We toured all over Europe. We pressed a lot of records. Of course I always held down a second job. My proudest moment was when they wrote about us in The Source. My stage name was ‘Jise,’ in honor of my brother. It was like I’d gotten us both there.
I get this. As the little sister of a lost brother, my writing is how I get us both there, me and my brother, and even my family too… But I have to start with me. With caring for and defending and protecting myself. And, yes, mothering myself. Today that meant making soup and writing these words while sitting on my deck…because I’m a writer and this is how I process. And this is how I take back my heart… Word.