A testimony for my 42nd year of life

I’ve been thinking about writing this for weeks. The weeks building up to my 43rd birthday on December 9th. 

One of the things I love (and also sometimes feel conflicted about) about Facebook’s “On this day” feature is what it reminds me of… For me this year it made me stare at the truth: I’ve been depressed the last two birthdays and holiday seasons. 

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In 2016, I turned 41, the age my brother was when he died. 

In 2017, turning 42 hit me hard because it meant that I’ve lived longer than him and that feels so unfair. 

How could the person who loved me and had my back like no one else, just be gone like that, so young? And, yes, though I’m so grateful to be alive, I’ve also felt guilty about that. 

Carlos loved the holidays. He loved the gluttony of Thanksgiving and he loved to go shopping for presents, to visit the tree in Rockefeller Center and Santaland in Macy’s. He loved the lights of the city, the carols that blared from speakers in every store we went to, the gaudy window displays. As kids when we went to visit family in Long Island, on our way home, no matter how late it was, he’d wake me so we could look at the houses decorated with all their lights, Santas and mangers. He said when he had a house, he would decorate it every year with a million lights and all the reindeer. He never got that house…

On Christmas in 2016, I had it out with my sister and we haven’t talked since. I’ve never had a close sister relationship with her, but it still hit me and made me think and wonder and be real damn sad. It’s not that I missed the relationship we had, because we never really had one. It’s just that made me feel even more like an orphan. It made me miss my brother more, and long for the sister I never had… 

I’ve known since childhood that my sister is violent and malicious. She’s been this way my whole life. My secrets were never safe with her. She spewed them to whomever would listen when she was mad, and used them as arsenal when we argued. A few weeks ago, she reminded me of how vicious she can be. I won’t go into it again, as I’ve already written about it and posted some of the messages I received during the three days long smear campaign she and her husband engaged in, which also included texting and calling family to tell them how horrible I am. 

It’s fascinating to see someone defend themselves against accusations of being abusive by being abusive.

A beautiful thing came out of it though. That week my therapist cancelled because he was sick, and this was the last time I would see him for a month because of Thanksgiving and him being away. So I had to take care of myself through it, and the thing is: I COULD!

I realized just how much I’ve grown and healed through therapy and my own dedicated work. I had the tools to care for myself and that was amazingly affirming. Sometimes you have to go through something to really testify to your own evolution.

One of the major things I’ve done over this 42nd year of my life is learn to take care of myself. 

***

Last school year (fall 2017 – spring 2018), I took a sabbatical from most of my teaching artist gigs to write and grow Writing Our Lives. I did it because I was starting to resent some of my teaching and I needed a break. What came out of that was some hard writing and serious healing. 

This fall, I only returned to one of those teaching gigs: the one that was most supportive, where I trusted my supervisor and knew she had my back. She still does. This was one way I took care of myself.

This fall I also walked away from a friendship that was unhealthy and unkind. This situation made me reassess my view of sister friendships. I’ve blamed my relationship with my mother for so long for my issues with women, but I now see my relationship with my sister is just as much at fault. I started an essay about it that I know will be a slow drip because the subject matter is so hard, but the beginning of it goes like this: “I haven’t always trusted women. What I’m saying is I haven’t always trusted myself…”

See, if I’m going to write about my distrust of women, I have to look at myself. This is what it looks like to be personally accountable. 

I’ve come to this: I want women friends who are supportive, gentle, I gotchu sister-friends; who don’t pretend they can live my life better than me (you can’t) and aren’t jealous of me or the work I do. I won’t accept anything less because I don’t deserve anything less.

This year I also resigned from a long held position to give myself what I’ve given that organization. I’ve long been self-sacrificial, and this was me making an effort to stop that. This too is me taking care of myself. 

I worked on my memoir and published some of my hardest and best essays yet, including “Splintered Doors” in The Rumpus and “What I Told Myself” in Roxane Gay’s anthology Not That Bad, now a NYTimes bestseller. That last essay took me seven years to write! And “Splintered Doors” was featured in the May 28th edition of Memoir Monday, a weekly newsletter that I’ve been subscribed to for years. I’ve cried many real thug tears over these successes. 

“Memoir Monday is a weekly newsletter and monthly reading series co-curated by Narratively, Catapult, Granta, Guernica, The RumpusLongreads and Tin House. We’ve brought together the heavy-hitters of online memoir to provide the very best new first-person writing all in one place, so you’ll always be well-read and in the know.”

The focus on Writing Our Lives over this past year has also borne much fruit too. I brought the classes online last fall and have since taught various multi-week classes including an Intro to the Personal Essay Class, Writing Fiction from Real Life, and Experimenting with Personal Essay Form.

I also created and taught the first Advanced Personal Essay Writing Workshop where students revised an essay several times, and researched lit journals, magazines and websites. On the final day, the writers submitted their essay for publication, and this past week one of those essays, “For Ibi, Ntozake and Every Colored Girl Who Has Ever Changed Her Name” by Nia Ita, was published in La Galería Magazine. Ain’t that dope?!

This year I launched the Writing The Mother Wound Class, a class I’ve been subconsciously creating for so many years. It’s my first multi-genre class, and though it was difficult work to hold that space and do that work, it helped me step up my game. I learned a great deal about my ability to set and maintain boundaries. See, a space isn’t safe if I don’t feel safe. In other words, I can’t put my students’ needs above my own. We all have to matter in the classroom. Period.  

The plan for the Writing the Mother Wound Class was to examine how writers have written about the mother wound in essays, poems, novel excerpts, memoirs and short stories. But then a playwright registered for the class, so I felt inclined (and yes, obligated and challenged) to hunt for plays that spoke to the subject. I embarked on some deep research (y’all know I’m obsessive, right?) that led me to some Cherrie Moraga plays. Already a Moraga fan, I went down the rabbit hole hard, and when I came up for air, I had some brilliant new ideas and exercises that were like nothing I’d done before. 

As a rule, I do the exercises I give students to get an inside to the experience and also to see if they work. Out of those playwriting exercises came a scene involving a character I’d been working with in fiction. I thought I’d started a new novel, but this fall that character, Milagros aka Millie, told her story through a six act play called A Lesson in Miracles! It’s my first play, something I’ve really never thought of doing, and it’s glorious! I performed the first act of the play in October when I featured at the Nuyorican Poets House during its famed Friday night slam, and got rave reviews! 

My 42nd year was about taking risks and stepping into my relentleness in a whole new, deeper way. 

In April, I traveled to Boston for Grub Street’s The Muse & the Marketplace Writing Conference, where I facilitated a craft talk titled “What Is Your Voice and How Do You Reclaim It?” I also taught a few online classes for them this year.

In June I announced a partnership with Tin House. When I created Writing Our Lives, one of goals was to eventually get my writers published. The partnership with Tin House made that goal come to fruition. After a months long process that included an open submission period, two essays were chosen out of the dozens that were submitted for publication in Tin House’s Flash Fidelity series. On December 10th, one of those essays, Hair Like a Cactus Needle by Yollotl Lopez, was featured in Memoir Monday.

Because this year has been so phenomenal for Writing Our Lives and my writers, I decided it’s time to have the first WOL Reading & Showcase. It’s taking place on December 21st at Word Up Bookstore in Washington Heights, and it’s sure to be lit!

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***

The magic of this year wasn’t limited to my professional life. I traveled quite a bit beginning with a train ride to Tampa for AWP with my brujermana Lizz. We bonded and laughed and wrote and shared stories and love. We re-sealed a sisterhood that has carried me for years. This woman is my person and I am so blessed to have her.

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In July I went to Puerto Rico for the first time in years, and visited the house in Lares that Millie left us. It was an emotional trip I’m still unpacking. There’s just something deeply holy about that island and the resilience of its people.

After only eight days back in NYC, we headed to Michigan for nearly two weeks of camping. That’s where my bae asked me to marry her in the most epic way. I even had back up dancers, and Katia made sure my brujermana was there and one of her best friends, Yaya, was there. It really was an epic proposal.

See, before I met Katia, when I wrote a list of what I wanted in a partner, at the top was “must be romantic.” Katia is totally that. She asked me to marry her in Michigan because that’s where we met in 2015.

I was wearing my brother’s jean shirt, and my daughter was one of the back up dancers. She screamed with joy when I said yes, and when I ran to her to show her my ring, we threw our arms around one another and cried. I still get teary eyes every time I see the video. (I’m not sharing it yet because I want to keep that one close and untainted but below are a few pictures of us at our engagement party.)

***

For a while now, I’ve been trying to write an essay about how I was born without enzymes. I’ve heard so many stories over the years about mami’s “carreras con Vanessa.”

I’m 43 now, so I’m not even sure if the records of that era even exist anymore, but from my research and what mom has told me, it sounds like I had a TFP deficiency. 

Symptoms showed up when I was just weeks old. I’ve heard stories about how sick I’d get: the clammy, cold skin, listlessness, diarrhea, vomiting, weakness, shakiness, fevers. Mom didn’t know what was wrong with me and the doctors she took me to couldn’t tell her. Then the doctors at Elmhurst Hospital told her that I wasn’t going to make it. That there was nothing they could do. That’s when she took me out of there. She had to sign a release form so she couldn’t sue the hospital if something happened to me. She says she took me back there when I was two; by then a chunky, bright eyed toddler who followed her brother everywhere. They didn’t believe it was me. 

But it was a visiting enzyme specialist at Columbia Presbyterian Baby Hospital who took one look at me and knew I was born with an enzyme deficiency. 

Simply said, all biological reactions within human cells depend on enzymes. Enzymes speed up biochemical reactions. Their power as catalysts enable biological reactions to occur in milliseconds, but how slowly would these reactions occur in the absence of enzymes? 

In 1995, Dr. Richard Wolfenden reported that without a particular enzyme, a biological transformation he deemed “absolutely essential” in creating the building blocks of DNA and RNA would take 78 million years.” (Dr. Wolfenden, is Alumni Distinguished Professor Biochemistry and Biophysics and Chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and holds posts in both the School of Medicine and in the College of Arts and Sciences, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.) Source

That means that we wouldn’t survive without enzymes because it would take too long for these life-sustaining biochemical reactions to occur without them. 

The doctor who saved me knew this. He put me on a special diet that introduced enzymes and amino acids to my body, then left it to me to basically teach myself to recreate them.

I think about the profundity of that. There’s a metaphor there.

Dr. Babatunde Samuel writes: “A chemical reaction without an enzyme is like a drive over a mountain. The enzyme bores a tunnel through it so that passage is far quicker and takes much less energy.” Source 

I was born without the ability to make things easier for myself. I had to teach myself this skill. I had to teach myself how to create shortcuts. How to dig tunnels. How to create my own pathways.

I had to do this when I was months old. 

It was at months old that I taught myself how to create a life for myself, and I’ve had to do this so many times over the years: at 13 when I left home and never moved back; in college at Columbia University; when I left abusive relationship after abusive relationship; when I became a single mom; when I quit an editing job to live this writing and teaching life; when my brother died… 

At months old, I taught my body a skill that has carried me throughout my life: to create my own pathways. Oof!

***

I read an article in the NYTimes this morning, “Can We Really Inherit Trauma”, where the author claims that the evidence that trauma can be passed from one generation to the next is circumstantial. 

“The idea is that trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, which then is passed down to subsequent generation. The mark doesn’t directly damage the gene; there’s no mutation. Instead it alters the mechanism by which the gene is converted into functioning proteins, or expressed. The alteration isn’t genetic. It’s epigenetic.” 

The claim in this essay, however, is that there simply isn’t enough evidence to prove this. 

“The idea that we carry some biological trace of our ancestors’ pain has a strong emotional appeal. It resonates with the feelings that arise when one views images of famine, war or slavery. And it seems to buttress psychodynamic narratives about trauma, and how its legacy can reverberate through families and down the ages. But for now, and for many scientists, the research in epigenetics falls well short of demonstrating that past human cruelties affect our physiology today, in any predictable or consistent way.” 

Here’s what I know: There’s a long history of trauma in my family, much that I don’t know but feel in my bones. Some I do know involving extreme poverty, rape, incest, abandonment, colonialism, unmothered daughters, immigration, etc. 

My mother has told me stories of how when my father found out she was pregnant with me, he tried to kick me out of her. She spent the rest of her pregnancy bleeding and in and out of the hospital, sometimes for weeks at a time. They only released her because she had my brother and sister to tend to, but mom never followed the doctor’s orders that she remain on bedrest. 

I was born with a metabolic disorder. I didn’t have the enzymes necessary to live. I had to teach my body to create them. That’s enough evidence for me. 

And isn’t that what my writing is: my way of creating a new life for myself and my daughter. A more healed life. A more whole and full one. One where I’m no longer ruled by my traumas. 

I know that this work I’ve taken on over the years has certainly healed so much of what I’ve carried. I saw clear evidence of that a few weeks ago when I had to deal with that situation with my sister. 

My daughter won’t carry that shit. Nah. Because if it’s true that we carry our ancestor’s traumas in our genes, then it follows that we also carry their wisdom. This writing is me unpacking my genes to locate it… I am imagining myself making a caldero of sopa. It’s ritual. It’s ceremony. It’s holy… It’s a way for me to call my ancestors to the table; how I ask them to speak to me through these stories. 

I don’t need everyone to believe that to be true for me to know in my heart (and my genes) that it is. This is one of the blessings that this year has gifted me: a surety in myself and my work that no one can take from me. I feel more grounded and badass. I see where I’ve been, what I’ve been through, and how I’ve not just survived, but created a life that I’m proud of. I’ve thrived and that feels hella dope. Word. 

loba

2 comments

  1. “I’ve come to this: I want women friends who are supportive, gentle, I gotchu sister-friends; who don’t pretend they can live my life better than me and aren’t jealous of me or the work I do. I won’t accept anything less because I don’t deserve anything less.” – I’ve come to this too sis. So proud of you. ❤ This was, as always, beautifully written.

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