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When the microaggressions stack

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I should be working on this commissioned essay on the fragility of motherhood, but instead, I’m here on my deck, trying to gouge out this tightness in my chest. Claw it out. These words are my attempt.

My daughter and I went out this morning to run errands and walk the dog. We went to the bank, to Starbucks to get my coffee then to the market to get a few things. She waited outside with the dog when we made our first two stops, but wanted to go into the market with me, that way she could remind me to get granola and cheese, and “please, can we get some more strawberries and yogurt so I can make a smoothie?” “Can we get bananas?” “Can we get ice cream?” We tied the dog in the shade. We were only supposed to be a few minutes, but it’s Sunday and there were lines and it took us longer than expected.

Baby girl went out ahead of me. “I’m gonna go get Napoleon.” She loves her dog, this tiny mutt who is fearless and protective and has helped us work through our grief over the past four years since losing my brother. I remember Napoleon sitting close to me, watching, as I cried myself to sleep some nights when I was in that deep well of grief. I remember how quickly he learned my whistle when I brought him with me to hike the woods. How joyful he gets when he’s allowed to run off his leash. How stiff he gets when he sees a stranger approach. He stands in front of me, ears perked, a quiet growl, mouth snarled, his canines shining. He is lying on my lap as I type this.

I came out to see a woman yelling at my daughter. I saw red, but tried to stay calm. My daughter is 12. I have to set an example. 

A man approaches me. He has a badge hanging around a string on his neck. He says, “Is this your dog?” “Yes,” I say, but I am staring at that woman and my daughter still has her back to me. “What’s going on? Why are you yelling at my daughter?” My daughter turns. Her eyes are wide. The woman walks towards me. “Is this your dog? He’s been out here for 45 minutes…” I put up my hand. “How about you lower your voice? That’s not the way you talk to people.”

The man asks for the dog’s tags. Says I can’t leave my dog out here like that. I show him my bags. Tell him about the lines. The woman is yelling. I glare at her. “You need to stop yelling at me and you also need to not yell at my kid.” “I didn’t know she was your daughter,” she yells. Her face is red. She is sweating. There is a cool breeze. Her sweat is rage.

“The point is that she’s someone’s daughter and you don’t yell at someone else’s kid.” She continues to yell. The man tucks the badge back into his shirt.

“It’s inappropriate for you to approach an adult like this.” I am still trying to stay calm but my hands are fists. White-knuckled. “You can talk to me without yelling or being hostile.” He nods. I pull my daughter towards me.

The woman has walked away. She is still yelling. “Get the fuck out of my face.”

“No one is in your face. I walked out here to you yelling at my kid, then you yelled at me. You’re a savage.”

She turns and walks towards me. I pull my daughter behind me. Through gritted teeth, I say, “You don’t wanna do that.” She stops in her tracks. Tells me, “Fuck you… You people…”

The man stands in front of her. She makes to move around him. She’s emboldened by him trying to stop her.

I laugh. “You’re a barbarian.”

“Barbaric is you leaving this dog out here. Poor dog.”

Before you defend her or think maybe she was right, remember that my dog was in the shade. It is not a burning hot day. There is a breeze in the air. Contrary to what she insisted, we were not in the market for 45 minutes. And we don’t usually leave him out like that. We went into the market for a few things that turned into a small compra, as happens with a 12 year old who wants you to buy this and that.

Regardless, there is a way to speak to people that doesn’t require yelling or being hostile and aggressive.

Regardless, that is not the way to get people to hear you.

Regardless, I am one of the “you people” she referred to. That’s all she said, “you people…” She didn’t have to finish. I saw it in the curl of her lip when I walked out and saw her yelling my kid. I saw it when she sneered fuck you.

***

I moved to this neighborhood in the Bronx that is notorious for its racism. I moved here because I heard it’s gotten more diverse, and I liked the small town feel of the neighborhood. I love our apartment. I love that I have a writing room and a deck. I love that we’re on a quiet road, across the street from a park. I love that I am woken by the chirping of the birds outside my window, blue jays and sparrows and red cardinals and tufted titmouses. A hawk likes to perch itself in a dead tree behind the house. I have heard her screech through the canopy. There are hiking trails a few blocks away. I’ve made this place home.

I moved here in the winter so I was “protected” for a while. Then the weather warmed and people started showing their asses.

The first time happened in the early spring, when there was still a chill in the air. I was wearing a sweatshirt. I looked like a teenager. I am 41. I was walking the dog past three older white folks by a stretch littered with mounds of dog poop. Napoleon stopped to pee. One of the woman sneered at me as they passed. Though I was perplexed, I ignored her. I was feeling damn good. I was planning a day of writing and hiking the trails I’d found the week before. It was spring, my favorite season, when the earth comes back to life.

“These people are disgusting. They need to clean up after their dogs.” She was referring to the mounds of dog shit she’d just walked past. Mounds the size of my dog’s head. None of them were his.

That’s when I realized she was talking about me.

“You’re right,” I said. “They do need to clean up after their dogs, but none of that was my dog.”

“So where is your bag?” she yelled. “You’re disgusting.”

“No, you’re disgusting for making assumptions about someone you don’t know. Did you see my dog shit there?”

She got into the car quickly and slammed the door. That’s when the man she was with said something. I don’t remember what but I know it was along the same lines as her diatribe: “you people…”

I lost it at that point. “Shut the fuck up,” I yelled and kept walking.

But it sat in my belly. The “you people…” The knowing that this was just the beginning.

There have been more incidents. A teenage girl who insisted that I walk around her. A white man in the supermarket. The owner of the house telling us “this isn’t Washington Heights” one night when she complained that our music was too loud.

***

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I had to read Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” slowly. It was so hard to see that reflection. I remembered so many moments: in boarding school, a lit cigarette thrown at my thirteen year old body; in college, being repeatedly mistaken for a member of the custodial staff, not a student, never a student; being told that I owe my elite education to affirmative action, not something I worked my ass off to get. These instances, too many to list and count, stack up and weigh on you. They are granite in your throat, a boulder on your chest, cement in your shoes. My daughter is learning this, and it is devastating to not be able to protect her from it.

***

Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnic minorities. World-Trust.org

***

My daughter and I got into a conversation on our way back home about what happened. She said, “That lady wouldn’t have yelled at us like that if we were white…” It is one of the saddest things my daughter has ever said to me. Why? Because she is 12 and already knows what racism and prejudice looks like.

She also knows that her mama got her back, always.

***

How to care for the injured body,
the kind of body that can’t hold
the content it is living?
― Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

***

It was in Ankara that I first felt shame for being who I was and coming from where I was from. I was in Turkey for the NATO Children of the World Festival. A group of black and brown kids from NYC was assembled to participate. We practiced for weeks before the auditions, then practiced for months before we headed to Turkey in the spring of 1989. I was 13, in 8th grade, and going through the boarding school admission process. This was the first time I was away from home by myself.

My host sister’s name was Asli. She was my age, blond and blue-eyed, and lived with her mother in a high rise condominium that overlooked the city. One day I walked into the bathroom to shower and saw Asli’s period soaked panties in the tub. I asked her to move them so I could shower. “That’s the maid’s job,” she said, with disgust.

That was the first and last time I saw the maid, who looked so much like me and my people. She hung her head as she entered the bathroom and shut the door behind her. When she resurfaced, the panties were gone and the bathroom sparkled. She stared at the floor as she walked past.

“What’s her name?” I asked Asli.

“What do you want to know that for?”

I went and took a shower as I’d planned.

The day before I left, Asli took me to the markets to go shopping for souvenirs. I cringed when I saw her push past an old woman who was begging for money. The old woman didn’t say anything. She just held out her hands, cupped in front of her, her fingers curled in awkwardly, head down, pleading. She reminded me of my great grandmother Tinita with her deep wrinkles and skin brown like the frijoles she shelled in the patio every morning. I gave the old woman all the change I had in my pocket. The woman turned her eyes up to look at who had given her enough change to fill her hands. Asli pulled me away before I could meet those eyes.

I came back to New York knowing that I had to leave Brooklyn. I had to prove that I was better than that. Than them. My people. I don’t say this with any sort of pride. I was a little girl who for the first time learned in Turkey, with Asli, that there was shame in being brown and being poor. I wanted nothing to do with that shame. I internalized that shit. I believed I was less than. It took me a long time to unlearn that shit. It was hard to when in boarding school and college and corporate America, I was reminded constantly that I was inferior because I was brown.

I shrunk myself for a long time. I tried to shrink the Latina brown girl in me. I tried to talk the way they wanted me to and act the way they wanted me to. I wanted so desperately to fit in…

***

When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical term—John Henryism—for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend. ― Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

***

A memory came flying in last weekend. I was camping in the woods of Northern Michigan with a group of women. A sister, E. Nina Jay, showed me her book (which I later purchased) and I spent some time reading her poems aloud. Beautiful, devastating poems about love and heartbreak and blackness. She complimented me on my speaking voice. The next day, at the Variety Show, I read one of Nina’s poems and a poem I wrote hours before. People complimented me on both my writing and my voice. “You read so well,” they said. I flashed to boarding school. 1989.

We were walking across one of the bridges that connected the lunch room and mezzanine to the main school building. This specific bridge had large windows that looked out onto the shop on one side (where mostly boys learned about cars) and onto the playground of the child learning center on the other side.

I was a new arrival, the only 9th grader in the scholarship program. He, a young black man, a senior who was a starter on the football team, bused in from Boston (Roxbury? Dorchester?), passed me the letter as I was walking with two girls in the same scholarship program, a senior and a sophomore, also from NY.

It was one of those “I like you, do you like me?” kind of love letters. Nothing profound. Cute in that young love way. But that’s not the point of this story. The point is that after I read the letter, they scrambled to read it too. I passed it to the senior, a Boricua from the Bronx. “You can read it firster than her.” They fell over laughing. Belly clutching laughing. At me. But it took me a minute to realize that. “Firster?” the black Dominican sophomore from Brooklyn said, laughing in my face now. “Who says firster? That’s not even a word.”

That wasn’t the first time I was made fun of for the way I spoke. And it wasn’t the last. The teachers corrected me. “It’s want to, Vanessa. Not wanna.” They told me I shouldn’t speak Spanish outside of Spanish class and, no, Spanglish wasn’t acceptable either.

I remember walking down the hallway, hearing, “Tawk, Rosie, tawk. We wanna hear you tawk.” They were referring to me as Rosie Perez (Tina) in the movie Do the Right Thing, the only context they had of a Latina in that era.

The kids would snicker when I was called on to read aloud in class. I knew how to read but I was always nervous so I messed up words. I stuttered. I stumbled. And they’d laugh.

I hated it. I hated that I didn’t fit in. I hated being mocked and made fun of. I hated feeling so small and less than. I promised  myself that I’d left that shit in NYC. That wasn’t going to happen to me here. Here I was starting anew. Here I was going to belong.

It started one day while I was sitting in the basement study of the house on Norfolk Terrace which served as our dorm. Our desks faced the wall. There was a window above mine that led to the driveway and the big oak tree I stared at at night from my bed.

I looked at the book shelf a few feet away to my left and scanned the shelves. I stopped at the Encyclopedias. I picked one up, opened it and started reading out loud. I enunciated the words. Want to. Going to. The not da. 

I practiced every day, alone in that basement. I practiced in my head on my long walks to school. But why not Pero why.

I started to volunteer to read aloud. The students stopped laughing. They watched me with raised eyebrows. They asked, “Hey, how’d you do that?” “Do what?” I asked, feigning confusion.

I learned to to read and speak the way they wanted me to. I didn’t use Spanish or slang.

I learned how to read aloud confidently. I learned to project my voice. I learned the power of captivating a room.

I’d soon realize that I wouldn’t fit in no matter what I did, but by then it didn’t matter. They knew I was smart. They knew I was determined. They knew I could assimilate. That’s what mattered. My brain could be respected if I wasn’t. That’s what mattered.

***

Nobody notices, only you’ve known,
you’re not sick, not crazy,
not angry, not sad–
It’s just this, you’re injured.
― Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

***

On our way up to Michigan, we stopped at a huge shopping store to get some final items for camping. We hear: “Oh shit” and turn around. We see a black man staring at us open mouthed. His eyes are so wide. My partner Katia laughs and says, “People of color, right?” He says: “Yes.” His name is Ovanté. He hugs us. Says: “Thank you for existing. Thank you for being alive here in Northern Michigan.” This is evidence of the importance of representation and seeing ourselves in the world we live in.

I remember the isolation of boarding school. It was there that I learned solitude. This is why…

***

It’s taken me a long time to undo what the world did to the girl and young woman I was. I had to teach myself that I was worthy and my stories were important and needed to be written. I had to read writers of color and protest for Ethnic Studies at Columbia University. I had to attend writing programs and workshops like VONA/Voices and Cave Canem. I had to be among communities of writers and artists of color. I had to make my way in this world that still assaults us every day, outside supermarkets, in neighborhoods that are becoming increasingly diversified while the white folks remind us that we do not belong. You people… 

I am no longer the girl that wants or needs their acceptance. I am no longer trying to be anyone but who I am—Afro-Indígena, fierce and loving and protective and loud and in your face. I will not be silenced. Ever. You should know that before you come for me. You will learn.

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FREE One Day WOL Essay Class

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Spread the word fam: FREE One Day Writing Our Lives Personal Essay Class

When: September 16th, 12pm-5pm
Where: West Village, NYC
Note: I will be streaming this class online, likely via FB Live (more info on that forthcoming)

Interested: send an email to writingourlivesworkshop@gmail.com with “Free One Day Class” in the Subject Line

I also have upcoming tuition based classes coming this fall, including a nine week personal essay class and a slew of online classes launching in October. You can find that information here.

Fall 2017 Writing Our Lives: Essentials of the Personal Essay Class

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* Workshop Dates: September 23, 30, October 7, 14, 21, November 4, 11, 18, December 2

* Workshop Times: 12pm-5pm unless otherwise indicated

* Tuition/Cost: $620 — Payment plans available. There is a nonrefundable $100 deposit required to reserve your seat. The deposit goes towards your tuition. If you are interested in a payment plan, you must arrange this BEFORE class begins.

* Financial Aid: A limited number of need based, partial scholarships are available on a first come, first serve basis. To apply, send a letter explaining your financial need—i.e. unemployed, underemployed, etc. Also explain why you think you need this class, what you expect to gain from it, and why you think you are deserving of the scholarship beyond your financial need. Send the letter with “Writing Our Lives Scholarship” in the subject line to: writingourlivesworkshop@gmail.com. (Note: Students who have not received a scholarship in the past will be given first dibs on the scholarships.)

* Project: A maximum 1500 word essay. All essays will be workshopped by the students and facilitator on the last day of class, December 2nd. More details will be provided.

Why nine weeks? Because I want to give my writers extended time to sit with the lessons and practice them at length; to dig into the stories that haunt them to find the one they want to delve into for their project: the essay we workshop in the last week of class. I want to give my writers time to practice what it means to write in their own voices—you’d be surprised how many of us write in these voices that are not ours because we’ve been told for our entire lives that we are not enough and our stories are not enough and our language is inferior (more on this here). I want to give my writers more time to be with themselves and their conviction to write these stories that gnaw at them.

What you need to know:

* This class is designed for people who are new or fairly new to the personal essay/memoir and know they want to take on the challenge.

* Perhaps you are interested in writing a memoir and want to get your feet wet in essay. As a memoir writer myself, I can tell you that the personal essay is the micro of the macro that is memoir.

* Maybe you’re a seasoned writer who wants to brush up on the essentials. There’s room for you too! Legend has it that Alvin Ailey used to take a basics dance class periodically, even after he created his now renowned dance school, “to remind myself,” he said.

* In the class we will dig into the fundamentals of writing personal essays: how to decide on a topic, how to start, how to read essays like writers (because reading like a writer and reading like a reader are not the same thing), how to build well-developed characters, how to write dialogue, etc.

* We will be reading essays (lots of them) and dissecting them; analyzing why the author made the decision(s) he/she made. We’ll also be doing tons of writing, including a maximum 1500 word essay as a final project. What I’m saying is you must be willing and able to do the work. The writing life you envision requires it.

Still not sure if this class is for you? Ask yourself this:

* Have you read essays and wanted to write your own but the thoughts get lost in translation, somewhere between your brain and your fingertips?

* Have you tried to write essays but find them hard to finish?

* Have you wondered how writers write their amazing essays but think you just don’t have the chops and wish you did? (Side note: you do have the chops!)

* Do you write religiously or sporadically in your journal and wish (maybe even know) you could make those streams of consciousness into essays?

* Are you a writer (perhaps you’ve written poetry and/or fiction) who wants a refresher on the techniques you take for granted so you can take a stab at essay writing?

* Have you heard some great things about the Writing Our Lives Workshop and want to see Vanessa in action?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, this class is for you. Email writingourlivesworkshop@gmail.com for information on registration, payment plans, etc.

Still not sure, I am offering a FREE One Day Class on September 16th, 12-5pm. Email for more details on that, including location, etc.

 

The Story of Writing Our Lives

In 2009, I attended my first VONA/Voices workshop. I walked out knowing I wanted to help bring our stories out into the world. Stories by marginalized writers like me who didn’t see themselves in the American canon, in the books they read in school or the ones that made bestseller and must-read lists.

Writing Our Lives is my way of helping you write your stories that are so necessary and important, even if you don’t yet believe they are.

Since creating Writing Our Lives in 2010, I’ve led hundreds of writers through the journey of writing personal and memoir essays. Many have gone on to publish and attend reputable writing programs and residencies like VONA/Voices, Cave Canem, Tin House and Hedgebrook.

There was so much going on in the country and in my life when I created the class. I’d just quit my full-time editing job and threw myself heart first into writing and teaching. The climate of the country was contentious, to say the least—Proposition 8 had just been ratified, anti-immigration legislation was sweeping the nation, and the Texas Textbook wars were gathering steam.

The present climate continues to fuel my belief that it’s time we write our stories, that we write them in our voices, and that we do so unapologetically. The massacre in Orlando, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the murder of so many young black and brown women and men by police, the reality that Trump is in the White House, have all served to convince me even more that we need, the world needs our stories.

I’ve been enamored with all things autobiographical since I was a kid. I ate up the Laura Ingall’s Wilder Little House on the Prairie books (which I know now are very problematic but was too young to know then), reading the series at least three or four times, but it was reading St. Augustine’s Confessions in my first year at Columbia University that really grabbed me up and didn’t let go. Known as the first memoir in history (which is questionable but that’s a conversation for a later time), that book started this personal writing obsession that made me search out and read thousands of memoirs and essays. I’ve used all this curiosity and knowledge to create this class: the Writing Our Lives Workshop, and to reinvent it numerous times, and build upon on it.

With that in mind, I am bringing Writing Our Lives online! More information will be provided in the coming weeks, but here are the classes slated to launch in October:

– Essentials of the Personal Essay (generative online class) — six sessions. *Note: this is not a workshop. Workshopping may be offered for an additional fee.

– Writing Fiction from Real Life (generative online class) — 3 sessions.

– Finding and Crafting Your Voice on the Page (generative online class) — 3 sessions.

 

Coming Spring 2018 — Information Forthcoming 

– Writing the Self as a Character— Online & In-Person Generative class

– Writing the Mother Wound — Online & In-Person generative class

– Writing Fiction from Real Life — In-Person class

– Finding and Crafting Your Voice on the Page — In-Person Class

*Note: The nine week essentials of the personal essay class will not be offered in the spring

 

How is Vanessa Mártir qualified to do this work?

Vanessa Mártir is a writer, educator and mama. She is currently completing her memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and chronicles the journey in her blog: vanessamartir.blog. Vanessa’s essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies, including The Butter, Poets and Writers, Huffington Post, Kweli Journal, Thought Catalog, and the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle, among others. Vanessa has penned two novels, Woman’s Cry (Augustus Publishing, 2007) and The Right Play (shopping), and most recently co-wrote Do Something!: A Handbook for Young Activists(Workman Books, 2010). In 2010, Vanessa resigned from her full-time editing position to write and teach full-time. Vanessa is a five-time VONA/Voices and two-time Tin House fellow. She created the Writing Our Lives Workshop in 2010 and has since led more than 200 emerging writers through the journey of writing personal and memoir essays. Vanessa is the recipient of the 2013 Jerome Foundation Fellowship. In 2016, Vanessa challenged herself to write an essay a week, dubbing the effort in The Relentless Files. She was so inspired by what she learned, that she decided to share the challenge with her community, creating the #52essays2017 challenge, in which more than 800 writers are participating. Vanessa attended Columbia University and is an A Better Chance (ABC) alumna. When she’s not writing or teaching, you can find her on a dance floor, punching a bag at the gym, or hugging a tree in a forest near you.

Celebrate yourself 

Addiction and the ghosts we carry

This morning I learned of the acceptance of a panel I was invited to be on at AWP 2018 in Tampa. The panel is titled Destruction and Creation: Addiction, Recovery, and Writing with Melissa Febos, Terese Mailhot, and Rob Roberge, moderated by Kelly Thompson

Panel description: The addiction story, though centuries old, is a breaking one. Five authors who write from the edges present perspectives and offer their approaches, both practical and emotional, to writing about addiction and recovery and the role addiction plays in their creative lives. The addiction myth operates in profound ways both historically and presently in the lives of writers. How do vocation and addiction intersect? How do we write in and through addiction spaces, images, and narratives?

I am thinking of my brother, Juan Carlos. When he died, after his fifteen year struggle with heroin addiction, I became obsessed with learning about addiction. I wanted to know why. I wanted to understand him–why he snorted it that first time; why he picked up that needle. I wanted to dig into why it is/was that I have been able to make something beautiful out of these ghosts that haunt me while he was taken out by his.

What happened to you, Superman?

In my research, I came upon these lines in an article that have stayed with me:

“If you know someone who’s using or has used, you should know that this isn’t as simple as them making bad decisions. They’re running from something that, to them, seems a whole lot scarier than a needle.”

I thought of this recently when someone told me that we have to stop treating addicts as victims. That kind of thinking isn’t just problematic, it’s simplistic and dismissive. We can hold people accountable for their behavior while also understanding that they are wounded and can’t deal with these wounds. “They’re running from something that, to them, seems a whole lot scarier than a needle.” Or that bottle of scotch. Or that crack pipe.

***

When I first noticed the sore on Carlos’s hand, it was just above his wrist, in the meaty part where his thumb and his index finger met. I knew he used heroin, he’d been doing it for years, had been in and out of rehab, but he always said he couldn’t shoot up. “It scares me,” he said.

I grabbed his hand when he reached for the cigarette I was passing him. “What’s that?” I searched his face, for what I don’t know. Guilt, maybe.

“Nothing. I cut myself.” He snatched his hand away.

“You cut yourself?” I stared at him with disbelief. I couldn’t believe he thought I was that stupid. Or that gullible. “Are you fuckin’ kidding me?”

“Ay Vanessa, please.” My brother only called me by my name when he was annoyed or just wanted me to shut the fuck up. When I heard later that he had to get it stitched shut, he didn’t answer my calls for days. When we finally spoke, I didn’t mention it. I didn’t have to. He knew I knew and I knew he was ashamed. It was an unspoken thing between us—he showed me his shame and I didn’t rub it in his face.

One time, when Carlos was living with me back in 2002, we were sitting in my room watching television. He was nodding out and when he caught me staring, he said, “It’s the methadone, sis, I swear.” I knew better but I didn’t push.

Later, out of nowhere, he said, “You know, sometimes when I’m high, I can see mom getting raped. I see it, sis. I see it happening.”

I didn’t say anything. I was too blown away by his audacity. I thought he was coming up with another excuse for his addiction, another rationalization, and I was pissed at him for using mom’s rape as a crutch. I was so wrong. My brother was showing me the depth of his pain. He was trying to show me how fucked up he really was by this cuco, the ghost that haunted him relentlessly. I didn’t really understand until just before he died.

***

My childhood friend Ulysses lost his mother to the crack epidemic that scourged our neighborhoods in the 80s and 90s. Maritza became the neighborhood crackhead. Back then, we all had a neighborhood crackhead. She was different when she was high. Once, she balanced herself on the top of a fire hydrant, laughing and marveling at herself, she looked like something straight out of a circus act.

But when she was sober, a dark cloud came over her. She would sometimes call to me and lower her bag on a rope from her second floor window where she put change so I could go get her the Weekly World News from the newsstand up the block. She paid me by giving me the old ones she’d already read. I’d run to the backyard and scurry up my plum tree to read them. Stories about aliens and a bat child found in a cave and how Elvis was alive and living in a monastery in India. It was in that tree that I became a writer. Maritza was part of the journey.

***

Is that what I had that my brother didn’t have: writing? A way of processing and being with these ghosts. A way of digging into them and thus freeing myself from their chokehold, poco a poco, día a día. 

***

My brother found out that he was conceived in a rape when he was just 13 years old. There are several stories around how he found out. My mother says it was Millie, her partner, who told him. She’s built a whole narrative around it. She’s cried to me, “Why did she tell my son?”

My brother told me it was my mother who told him. Which story is true, I can’t say. What I can say is that my brother didn’t receive the support he needed. No therapy. No discussion. He was told this story about his conception and was supposed to, expected to live with it. Forced to live with it. This is the story that haunted him. This is the thing that was scarier than that fuckin needle and that crack and the crystal meth that I only learned about after he died.

I think of Voldemort, the antagonist of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. According to the story, Voldemort could not feel love because his witch mother, Merope, conceived him when his father (a muggle named Tom Riddle, Sr.) was under the influence of a powerful love potion, Amortentia. The love potion could not create actual love, only infatuation. Merope died in childbirth and in an interview, J.K. Rowling said: “It was a symbolic way of showing that he came from a loveless union–but of course, everything would have changed if Merope had survived.” Once the effects of the potion wore off, Tom Riddle Sr. abandoned both Merope and his son, so when his mother died, Voldemort had to spend his most impressionable years in an orphanage, and later at Hogwarts as a member of the Slytherin house.

Consider the story of Harry together. Harry also had a terrible loveless childhood, and somehow gained strength from the struggle. Harry used that strength in a much different way than Voldemort. He became “the one.” The only one who could destroy Voldemort.

My brother had my mother. She loved him in a co-dependent way that I’m still picking apart. She took care of him until the end.

She abandoned me.

So that leads me to the question: if my brother was unmothered, would he have been able to survive his ghosts?

I don’t know. These are all questions I have. They come from the bittersweet realization I’ve had over the journey of writing my memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings — I would not be who I am, would not have accomplished all that I have and continue to, had I been mothered.

Ain’t that a bitch?

I still want to know… What happened to you, Superman? Why? Why did you not see yourself worthy of love when you had so much of it in your life? Why couldn’t you overcome that ghost? And why do I continue to work tirelessly to overcome mine?

It was my brother’s death that made me decide to do the work to heal.

I can pinpoint the moment I decided to live. Because, yes, that’s what it became. I had to decide to live. I was in that darkness of grief that I knew could take me out. That almost did.

I walked into my daughter’s room like I have and still do every night since she was born. I looked at this beautiful little girl who formed in my womb, and thought, “I can’t leave her. She needs me.”

She needs me like I needed my mother.

And so, I took a chair and sat in my grief and all those griefs this grief uncovered, especially the grief over my relationship with my mother, the fact that she can’t and won’t mother me. And she probably never will. 

Why couldn’t he do that? Why, carajo, why?

***

I have so many questions. Some of them I’ll never be able to answer, but this I do know — this work I do is how I bring my brother along with me. I love him. I miss him. I carry him. Always.

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Soup Ministry

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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.

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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
will
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
and
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
died.
keep the rage tender.
because the soft season will
come.
it will come.
loud.
ready.
gulping.
both hands in your chest.
up all night.
up all of the nights.
to drink all damage into love.
-therapy
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.

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***

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:

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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.

Trauma on the train and the aftermath

Man gets on train blasting music on his phone. He sits next to me. I say nothing for several stops while people roll their eyes and move away. I can’t concentrate on what I’m reading (Sherman Alexie’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”) because the music is so loud. I ask man nicely to lower his music. He rolls his eyes, grumbles some shit about it being too early (indeed it is, sir) but lowers his music. He keeps grumbling, peppering the word fuck freely in his rant. Music comes on again. He challenges: “Say something.” Then raises his music even higher and starts cursing at me, saying I need to get fucked, asks me if I’m the one that he fucks. See, that’s my problem: I need to get fucked good and hard, and maybe then his loud music won’t bother me. I say: “What does me being fucked have to do with your music being disruptive? I wasn’t rude to you.” He keeps cursing and yelling. I laugh. I pretend to be unbothered. But the truth is that my hands are shaking and my heart is thrashing. I put my book away and place my coffee on the floor. I put my hand in my bag and grab my keys. I fist them in my hand. Put a key in between each finger. He gets up. Glares at me. Sneers, “fuck you.” I tell him to have a good weekend. He walks out.

I typed this while riding on the same train. Yes, I could have stayed quiet and left him to be disruptive. How does that help? I didn’t know this man had the capacity to be so vile. The thing is, this isn’t a rare occurrence. Women have to deal with this kind of violence all the time. It ranges from a conversation online when a man calls a woman emotional, thus negating her and connoting that she is hysterical and incapable of logic and having a conversation, to men putting their hands on us and assaulting us and abusing us and killing us. These incidences are all in the same vein. They are rooted in hatred and the the belief that we are inferior and not worthy of respect. I think of these Tupac lines:

And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women

***

I carried that trauma in my body all day. I still went about my day. I went to therapy where I unpacked some of the anxiety I was carrying. I went to NYU for a business meeting. I felt a pressure in my head all day, in my temples and the back of my head. I kept going.

Because I have to.

Because what other option do I have?

Because I didn’t know what else to do.

I felt it as I tried to leave the NYU building. The plan was to head home. It started in the elevator. I felt my stomach turn and fizz. I ran to the bathroom. I was on the toilet for forty minutes.

When I finally felt like maybe I could make it, I walked out the building only to run back in. I threw up for ten minutes.

I curled up on the couch in the lobby. This was my body trying to release the stress of the day. It was also a stress response to having to get back on the train to get home. Every time I tried to leave, my stomach lurched. This is what trauma does. It’s trauma that stacks up on you. As I described it to my therapist: “One pebble is nothing but imagine a thousand pebbles. That weighs on you…” I’m sharing this so y’all know that even the strongest woman is not unaffected…even we can break…

***

This world is dangerous for women. Men: we need you too to step up and help us make it safer for all of us because this violence is detrimental to you too.

I made the decision yesterday to start boxing again. And I’m putting my daughter in boxing classes too. Why? Because I feel safer knowing I can knock a mothafucka out. Here’s the thing: I shouldn’t have to…

***

I know many people who follow me on social media and read my writing think I’m so strong, impenetrable even. You should know that I cried yesterday. I cried because I felt the trauma in my body. Because my body revolted and froze up at the idea of having to get back on the train. I curled up on that couch at NYU and I shake-cried for the triggered little girl in me. I cried for my daughter who is already navigating this world that is so cruel to women and girls.

I am blessed to have a partner who knew what I needed though I couldn’t tell her. I thought it was too much to ask. How could I, this mujerona, say: “I need you to come get me. I can’t get on the train. I just can’t.” She knew. She came. And when I got in the car, I fell into her, sobbing. I cried for much of the ride home.

We’ve all been touched by trauma. Being strong doesn’t save any of us from it. And pretending that we are unaffected doesn’t serve anyone.

***

When I posted about my traumatizing experience, most folks responded with such incredible tenderness and support, I was overwhelmed by it, and so grateful. There was one person, however, who chose to take this moment to lecture me about how Tupac was an asshole (I quoted some of his lyrics), and how she’s tired of him being quoted. I can’t give her words verbatim because I deleted her comment. I didn’t need that shit in my space. I think this is a learning opportunity for all of us on what not to do when someone is sharing trauma.

I’m a writer. I process through writing, so in that moment, I was raw and hurting. I typed the status update moments after the incident. It was what I had to keep myself present and calm when my insides felt like they were exploding. I was having that post-adrenaline rush crash that leaves you reeling and chewing your nails down to the root. A lecture is not what I needed. I get that the comment wasn’t about me. Perhaps that person has her own unresolved trauma she hasn’t processed. The thing is, that’s not mine, but she chose to put it on me by responding to my status. I can’t take care of your hurt when I’m still in the thick of mine. It’s also a hell of a selfish thing to do.

Listen, if you’re not in a place to be there for someone, don’t be. If you don’t know how to be present and hold space, don’t. Don’t make their trauma about you. Don’t be that asshole. Thanks.

***

I put this piece together as I work on editing an essay on toxic masculinity. The irony does not escape me. I started the essay weeks ago, when my homegirl Elisabet Velasquez wrote a status on FB calling men out on their problematic behavior. Some dude bro came on to tell her that she was being divisive and it wasn’t fair for her to address all men since “we’re not all the same.” He went on to say that this wasn’t the solution to the problem.

There’s always one fool that comes on to take attention away from the real issue to defend himself because that’s how fragile male egos are.

I started thinking about the countless times I’ve had to deal with men and their shit. Their fragile egos. Their toxic behavior. I started a list… I eventually stopped compiling because the list got so long and I knew I could keep going for days, weeks even. And I knew that I could add present experiences, because we women have to deal with this shit daily…even from people we love.

Yesterday, one of my best friends who I’ve known since we were 17-year-old freshmen at Columbia University, responded to one of my statuses about how when men want to disqualify and condescend a woman and gaslight her, they tell her she’s being emotional. Of course that’s an old tired, sexist trick. I don’t pretend not to be emotional. In fact, I embrace it these days. I am emotional because I give a fuck. I can be emotional and engage in a conversation and/or debate. I can be emotional and still function in the world. This best friend decided to tell me what men mean by this. He did the #notallmen thing. To be clear, that shit is never okay, but he did it on a day that I was dealing with trauma. It did not go well.

I deleted his note and sent him a text about why. See, we’re both 41. This friend and I have seen one another through so many phases of our lives, and some really hard shit. In short, he’s my boy and I love him, but the truth is that our friendship has always been contentious like this. I know he can be sexist because he’s been sexist to me, but yesterday was not the day to do this.

We went back and forth. He wasn’t hearing me and I wasn’t hearing him. I wrote: “Yes, I’ve lost my shit before. So have you. But I was talking about specific moments. I didn’t have to explain that to women who get that this shit happens. I have to explain it to a man, you, who wants to pick this apart because the reflection is too hard for him to look at. That’s weak. You’re being emotional. See what I did there?”

He wrote: “Blanket assertions are killing society now. Stop feeding into that.”

I called him out. I asked him when was the last time he checked in on me. (So you don’t check on me but think it’s okay to mansplain me? Fuck that, no.) Told him he was doing what so many of them do: diverting attention away from the issue at hand. Said that the status did in fact have context but he didn’t bother to ask. Instead he took this as a chance to school me.

This is part of the problem: We don’t ask questions. We make assumptions. We make things about us.

The truth is that my boy doesn’t know what it is to walk in the world as a woman. He doesn’t get that we women have to deal with this kind of dismissiveness and these gradients of toxic masculinity all the fuckin time. Even from the men we love.

***

I don’t have a conclusion for this here essay. All I know is that I’m licking my wounds today.

I’m thinking about how we hold space for one another and how we don’t.

I’m thinking about what it is to be a woman and the mother of an almost thirteen-year-old girl.

I’m thinking about how even the men we love treat us in ways that are problematic as fuck.

I’m thinking about how we all have to learn to listen more and react less.

I’m feeling those boxing gloves on my hands as I pummel that bag. It’s just me and the bag and my fists. I feel the rage and aggression pulsing through my arms as I swing.

Jab-Right cross.

Jab-Jab-Cross.

Jab-Cross-Left hook.

Jab-Cross-Hook-Cross.

Jab-Cross-Left uppercut-Cross.

Jab-Right uppercut-Left hook-Right Hand finish.

Right cross-Left hook-Right cross.

I am sweating, panting, sore. I feel powerful. Unfuckwithable.

I feel safe.