#52Essays2017 Week 4: How to Date Me (Since There Has to Be a How-To)

Dating someone is all good until you tell them you have an anxiety disorder. There’s the whole honey-dipped phase of sweetness where it’s all, “What’s your favorite color?” and “What do you like to do for fun?” and “I can’t wait to see you (insert cutesy emoji).” And then, as the weeks go by and the novelty begins to fade, your anxiety will creep in and remind you that it’s there and has been there and it ain’t going nowhere.

Let me paint a little picture for you: You’re on a date with a person and everything is going well. They’re awesome to look at, conversation is flowing, it’s all good. But then you feel the tips of your toes warm and then the heat is up to your ankles, then your knees, until you know what’s happening. You try to control your breathing but have to excuse yourself and run to the bathroom to avoid them having to see you squirm or burst into tears. In the bathroom, you feel safe at first, calming slowly. You create more anxiety though because you’re in the bathroom for longer than an actual piss requires, so you start to freak out. You dab paper towel under your sweaty arm pits, splash cool water on your face, reapply lip gloss or what have you in a feeble attempt to hide what happened, even cry a little if you can’t hold it back.

You come back out and they can see something is clearly wrong.

“You okay?”

*

My mother tells me I give up too much information about myself. She doesn’t understand the need for Facebook and says that even if you’re posting good news, mal do ojo is real and some people have these shit-eating grins when it comes to the good in your life. My mother has never been one to share her business with anyone unless she considered them a real friend and even then, I’m sure she picked and chose who that was. She doesn’t understand why I am okay with sharing things about myself so freely.

When I tell her that I let the person I am dating know I have an anxiety disorder, she scoffs.

“You don’t have to tell him all of that, Imani. He doesn’t need to know that. Not yet.”

I can’t say that I completely disagree with her. Most men that I have told this to have never understood or cared to learn more about it. They just take my word for it and then when I voice an opinion, thought or discomfort to them, they ask me if  I’m “having anxiety.” If they don’t condescend to me in that manner, they are hesitant to voice their own opinions, thoughts, or discomforts because they don’t want to give me anxiety.

Both responses lead to miscommunication.

Both responses ultimately lead to the end of our chapter.

Again, this all boils down to lack of knowledge. I get that.

I have been reading a lot of articles being posted on my Facebook timeline about how to date someone with anxiety and it started to piss me off. Being with me (or someone like me) shouldn’t be thought of as a chore, shouldn’t be thought as too difficult. Too much of the language used in these articles refer to someone with anxiety as being overthinkers and overly sensitive. Too much of the language implies that this a long and arduous road to date someone with anxiety.

Since there is an apparent need for a how-to on how to date people with anxiety, I’m going to break down how to date ME.

*

  1. Do your homework. Don’t just take my word for it and say, “Oh, she has an anxiety disorder.” Talk to me about it. Don’t be afraid to ask me questions. Don’t be afraid to do your own research and tell me about what you have found. The point of me telling you is that I hope to be completely transparent in all of my relationships, both established and burgeoning. It won’t work if you’re not willing to be open for discussion or open to learn.
  2. Understand that not all people with an anxiety disorder manifest anxiety in the same way. It’s not just over-worrying or being too sensitive. Some have anxiety attacks to the point where they seize up and can’t move. Some have anxiety that feels like a heart attack. Others break out into tears, sweats, shakes. That’s me for the most part: the tears, the sweating, the shaking. At it’s very worst, I feel like someone is stepping on my throat and I  can’t breathe and my body overheats like I am sizzling in a pan. Most recently, my anxiety has begun to manifest itself in dizzy spells that wake me up from sleep, nausea and stomach problems, involuntary eye twitches, insomnia, lack of appetite. My advice is to ask your partner how their anxiety has been manifesting. Ask them if they have been struggling with these manifestations.  Talk, talk, and talk some more.
  3. Remember that an anxiety attack is not about you and it is not your fault. Sometimes, the shit just happens and I can’t control it. This is not a reflection of time spent with you or something you did or are doing. However, if something you are doing is in fact, triggering anxiety, I WILL let you know. Be adult enough to just stop doing whatever it is that I point out and be willing to talk about it when I am able to bring myself down.  Again, communication.
  4. Whatever you do, DO NOT tell me to “Relax,” or “Calm down,” or “Stop overreacting,” or “Just breathe.” One day, I was working out in the park with my roommate. Everything was fine, until I felt my stomach flip and nausea sweep over me like a tidal wave. I turned green and dizzy and couldn’t breathe. This was the first time she saw me have an anxiety attack and her initial response was to say, “Just relax, Angie.” That doesn’t help. All it does is make the person worry that this is some sort of nuisance, some sort of burden which can only exacerbate the attack. I remember turning to her and between shallow breaths and drops of sweat replied, “If I could control what is happening, it wouldn’t be happening.”
  5. Please do not project your frustration on to me. I understand the frustration of helplessness, the frustration of not knowing how to fix it, change it. Again, if I could stop an attack I would. Getting upset with me for having anxiety only makes it worse. And only makes you look like a world class asshole. Stop that shit.
  6. If I am having anxiety in front of you, ask me what I need. “What do you need?” is probably the best question to ask me. Personally, and again, this may differ for others dealing with an anxiety disorder, I am not a hugger when I am having anxiety. I will usually ask for water or an open window. Just be patient and remind me that I am okay, that we are okay, that everything is okay. That helps me a lot, too.
  7. Know that I am putting in work as well and hold me accountable for it. I do my best to manage my anxiety. I have breathing exercises, grounding exercises, etc. There is work to be done on my end, I am well aware of it. I can’t promise that I will be cured, but I can promise that I will work to manage it as best I can, whether it means I use my exercises, or see a therapist, or begin to take meds. Please feel free to communicate with me when you feel like I am not taking care of myself, when I am not keeping my word, when I am not communicating.
  8. Again, educate yourself. Learn the grounding exercises and breathing exercises I utilize and remind me of them if I have anxiety in front of you. Shit, use them for yourself. I remember sharing with my older brother a sensory grounding exercise, where as you’re feeling anxious, you name five things around you at that moment: something you can smell, you can taste, you can see, you can hear, you can touch. This is why I try to have gum or candy in my purse or a body spray to use. Finding tangible things to focus on allows you to bring yourself back to the present moment and out of your head. One day, my brother calls me and says he was feeling a little overwhelmed on his commute home and used a variation of this grounding exercise and lo and behold, it worked and he was able to bring himself back down. No, this doesn’t mean you have an anxiety disorder if you use these exercises, it means you are utilizing self-care. Ask me about them. For me. For you. For us.
  9. Make me laugh. Sometimes, it can be that simple. No, I can’t promise that this will always work, but sometimes laughter is indeed the best medicine.
  10. Lastly, know that this is just as much of a learning process for me as it is for you. I am still learning how my anxiety manifests, how it evolves, what it is triggered by. I sometimes do not have the answers, I sometimes drop the ball, I sometimes don’t communicate as well as I should. I am still learning ways to manage it and coping with the fact that I might eventually have to turn to medication if I can no longer manage it. If this is ever the case in the future, all I ask is for your support and your communication, your efforts to learn and talk about it. Just remind me that I am okay, that we are okay, that everything is okay.

*

I suppose ten items on that to-do list is sufficient if not excessive.

I told someone I was considering writing this, creating my own how-to-love-me-and-my-anxiety list and they had two responses. Their first response was that explaining my anxiety too much could make a potential partner feel like I am a burden, as if dealing with me and my anxiety is a chore. I responded that if they choose to take that perspective that they are coming from a place of ego and not spirit. If they choose to think of me as a burden or a chore, then it begs the question: Are you really here for me or the idea of me? Because, this is me, this is part of my life and has been for some time. I have had to cope and deal with the challenges of it. If you choose not to, it was nice knowing you but I suppose I am better off.

My friend’s second response was that I shouldn’t have to explain how to love or care for me. I agree,  I shouldn’t. I am aware though, of someone not being familiar with how to process and navigate these challenges and if me talking about it can help them understand better and they are making efforts to learn, then how can I not share? The person that I end up with, whoever that will be, will make efforts, will educate themselves, and talk to me about it. They will know that without communicating and working together, we could and would never work. Period.

I am human and complex and flawed and working on it. I didn’t ask for this. I certainly am not pleased to have to navigate these waters, trust me. But I’m working on it.

I know I am worthy of the grandest love, the most amazing love, the sweetest honey-dipped love because I know the kind of love I have to offer.

Anxiety is just a blip on the radar in comparison to that.

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#52Essays2017 – Week 3: “Did you tell her that your kids are Black?”

When my mother was pregnant with my oldest brother, the apartment she shared with my father on 181st Street and Valentine Avenue was broken into. Someone who robbed the apartment next door had knocked down the thin wall in their closet to get into my parents’ apartment, knocking over my father’s stereo system and robbing my mother of all kinds of things she had owned for years. Real jade pieces that my uncle had brought back for her from his tour in Vietnam, money, records. When I asked my father who lived next door, he said, “One of the last Mohicans, Angie. All the white people were running from the South Bronx  and had been for years. But she was one of the last white people living in the Bronx at the time who wasn’t a landlord but a tenant.”

Despite most of their own possessions being stolen, the neighbor accused my father and mother of being behind the robbery of her apartment and the situation was beginning to get nasty.  With my mother’s belly swelling every day, my father went out looking for an apartment with $600 in his pocket. He found what he was looking for in the Kingsbridge section in the Bronx. The apartment where I grew up. Where my mother still lives.

At the time, the landlords of the building were two white women who lived on the top floor in an apartment that was two apartments in one. They literally lived on top of their tenants who were becoming increasingly brown and this, apparently, was a problem. So, when they met my father, with his light skin, green eyes and straight thick black hair, who spoke of a lovely pregnant wife, they were, of course, delighted to offer an apartment to the happy couple.

The first week in their new building, my father and mother were in the elevator. One of the white lady landlords came on to the elevator and smiled wide at my father. She didn’t acknowledge my dark-skinned mother, did not look in her direction. White Lady Landlord smiled her white lady smile at my olive-skinned father who she assumed was Italian.

“Oh, hi! How’s the apartment? How’s your wife?”

“She’s standing right here.”

White Lady landlord’s eyes widened and her smile froze.  She finally acknowledged my mother, belly full with my brother, brown skin glowing with Africa. Her lip curled with a sneer and she scoffed as the elevator door opened.

My mother smiled and spoke as White Lady landlord left the elevator.

“Nice to meet you!”

*

I asked my mother how she felt when White Lady Landlord looked at her like that.

“She did what she did, Imani. I was still going to be there even if she didn’t want me there.”

Mami was the prettiest woman I knew and I wanted to be her color, that warm rich brown that only deepened in the sun. She was unafraid of her Blackness, unafraid of her Boricua-ness. Since I was old enough to understand, she’d tell me that in her youth, she was, “Too Black for the Puerto Ricans and too Puerto Rican for the Blacks.” She tells me how difficult it was to fit in but stresses that she wouldn’t drop one for the other.

“I’m Puerto Rican, Imani. Boricua. That’s who I am. But I’m Black. Can’t change that. I’m a Black woman but no one can take Puerto Rico away from me.”

*

My father is an African drummer, a congero, an amazing percussionist and I do not say that because he is my father. The man has skills. He is also a light skinned Puerto Rican man with a mane of thick black hair that has thinned somewhat as he’s gotten older and green eyes that always change color from green to hazel to gray to even blue sometimes. He often tells me stories about having to prove himself to other drummers who had more African features, tells me how they doubted him because he was just a “white boy” trying to play the congas.

And then he’d show them.

He’d show them that Africa lived in his hands hitting them skins.

And they’d believe him.

He told me once that when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, he ran home from school, hiding when he could because as light as he was, he just knew he would be a target for the Black kids in the neighborhood. And he was a target. What saved him? Speaking Spanish.

“If I didn’t know Spanish, Ang, they would’ve beat my ass that day.”

When I asked Dad how he felt about White Lady Landlord not acknowledging Mami, he paused for a breath and said, “You kids have no idea what  your Mami had to go through.”

*

My mother reminds me of my light skinned privilege all the time. She raves about how beautiful I look when I’m tanned by the sun and when the color fades with winter, she tells me I look almost as white-skinned as my father. It’s her way of reminding me that people could never mistake me for anything but Latina the way they so often think she is not Puerto Rican.

There is a moment in my life that I have written about in story before. A moment that feels so tangible even now as I type it. Mami and I were going home on the subway and it was crowded. I don’t know where we were coming from but it was packed on that train. I mean that New York City subway tight crowded where you can’t help but bump into others and hit people with your bag. Mami made sure I was holding on and knocked her bags into the knees of a bottle blonde woman who turned to her friend sitting next to her and said, “Brujas negras nunca tienen modales.” I remember their giggles. I remember Mami’s hand over mine on the subway pole. As we were leaving the train, Mami turned to the woman, smiled, and said, “Mira lo que dices porque nunca sabes quién habla español en estas calles.”

I’ll never forget those women’s faces when they realized that my mother was a Latina like them.

It made me want to be my mother even more.

When I get older, I tell her that people never think I’m Puerto Rican. I’ve been asked if I am Yemenese, Ethiopian, Brazilian, Pakistani, Egyptian,etc. and I tell her I just smile and say, “No. I’m Puerto Rican but thank you for the compliment because (fill-in-the-blank) women are so gorgeous.”

She laughs and says, “All I see is a little light skinned Puerto Rican girl.”

*

In 2015, I attended the VONA writing workshops in Miami, Florida. VONA is a safe space for writers of color, the only multi-genre week-long writing workshop for writers of color in the nation. I was insulated by the warmth of being surrounded by people who fully understood me, people of color whose passion for writing was the same as my own. I felt at home.  When I went to VONA in 2014 in California, I experienced a period of mourning after VONA ended. It was why I stayed an extra week in California before returning to reality. I did the same for the 2015 VONA. My father lives in Florida, a short half hour car ride from where VONA was being held so it was an easy choice. I was able to spend time with my dad and decompress from VONA, emotionally and mentally preparing myself for the reality of a world that didn’t feel as safe, didn’t feel as good.

One day during that week I spent with him, he took me to the house of his girlfriend’s brother, let’s call him, Hugh. Hugh had just hooked up his pool and my father and I were both invited to spend some time there, drinking beer and swimming. The three of us were enjoying ourselves, sipping at cold Budweisers and shooting the shit. Dad and I did some flips in the water and joked around. It was actually a nice day. Hugh was a decent enough person from what I can remember. Not someone I would hang out with on the regular but he was generous with beers and reminded me of one of those stereotypical New York Eye-talians, thin gold chain on over-tanned skin, Brooklyn accent, gesticulations and all. We were laughing when his wife came home from her nursing job.

“Hugh!” We all looked in the direction of her voice. She stood there in pink scrubs, a petite woman with too-tanned skin, long white blonde hair cut in a tacky outdated style, too long platinum bangs fringing eyes rimmed in cheap black eyeliner. She stared at me, saying nothing. She didn’t smile back when I smiled at her and greeted her. She stood there and acknowledged only my father and her husband when they said hello. My father introduced me and she nodded, turning to walk back to the glass enclosed patio, grabbing a beer from the cooler.

I felt awkward, unsure if I was bugging out. Did she not even care to meet me?

I thought to myself that it was only because I was a much younger woman in her home and then scolded myself for thinking that about another woman. But why couldn’t I place this discomfort that crept up my toes and flushed my face, making me want to cover myself, making me feel so unwanted? I realized it like a punch in the gut. Looked at my now-deep bronze tanned skin compared to my father and to her husband and to herself. I swam to my father, who was finishing the last of his beer and leaned in to his ear.

“Dad? Did you tell her that your kids are Black?”

“Of course I did, Angie. I know, she acted so weird, right?”

My father and Hugh both got out of the pool to dry off and sit with Hugh’s wife in the patio to talk and drink more beers. I stayed in the pool a little bit longer, knowing she was watching me swim, knowing that she was watching my big brown beautiful self and my big brown boobs floating in her beautiful brand spanking new chlorine pool. I knew she didn’t want me there. I stayed in that pool and relished that water as if it were life-giving. I walked out of the pool only when the edges of the sky turned lavender and my father motioned for me to come have a beer before the mosquitoes ate me up.

I sat across from her at the glass patio table and she stared at me, her cheap black eyeliner bleeding into the corners of her eyes. There was small talk, very awkward small talk that grated my nerves. She smiled politely at my father and mostly just smirked at me, responding with boasts about what her husband had fixed up in the house and asked me if I had a house where I was. Where was I coming from again?

“The Bronx.”

“I had a feeling.”

Now how the fuck do I respond to that? I smiled and sipped at a can of quickly warming Budweiser.

When we left their house, I told my father that I was sure she would have her pool cleaned.

*

My dad later told me that he had to say something to them about the language they used in front of him when they first met. They called Black people “coons” and “tar babies” and referred to the predominately Black neighborhood in their area as “Boogietown.” My father responded immediately to their nonchalant way of using the words and spazzed one day, telling them they were disrespectful to say those things.

“The mother of my children is a Black Puerto Rican. I don’t like that language. When you say shit like that you’re talking about her, you’re talking about my kids. You’re disrespecting the people I love. I don’t want to hear that shit anymore. Stop fucking saying it.”

“We didn’t know you’d take it like that, Angel. We didn’t mean it like that.”

I have always resented that ludicrous response. How else could it have been meant? Also, how was he supposed to take it? Did they assume that because my father is a light-skinned Puerto Rican that he’d be okay with that kind of ignorant language? My father being who he is let them know with a quickness that his light-skin didn’t mean his heart was full of that hatred. I wonder how many times my father has had to have this conversation with people who assume he is okay with hatred because he is a white-skinned Puerto Rican.

My father tells me they have never used those words in front of him again. During the 2016 elections, he tells me that they are avid Trump supporters and talk about the Obamas as if they were both dirtying up the country. As if they took a big shit on the lawn of the White House and smeared it over the country.

I told him that I was sure they never stopped calling it “Boogietown.”

I don’t doubt it at all.

*

I suppose what is infuriating about that woman is that she made me feel as if I had done something to her. What is infuriating about that memory is that I was polite when I could have been true to myself and asked her what her damn problem was. I am angry at myself for not standing up to her. I am angry at myself for believing that my kindness, my manners, my niceness would eliminate or outweigh her obvious distaste for me, would change her lack of kindness, would erase her racist and prejudiced perspective.

How do you navigate that kind of shit knowing how fucking unnecessary it all is? Isn’t it infuriating? Isn’t their ignorance the most frustrating thing?

The day after Trump was elected, I was sitting at my desk at work and came across a collection of tweets from people of color describing the ignorance being spewed at them the first day of Trump being our President-elect.

No, not ours. Theirs. White male supremacy voted that man in. Fuck that. Privileged white hetero male insecurity voted that fucking Cheeto into office. Punto.

Nonetheless, I cried at my desk that day reading those tweets. I cried because I was just so sad. I was so disappointed and so enraged. I thought of Hugh’s wife and her black rimmed eyes and her nod and her staring. I thought about how I tried to be nice to her, hoping she’d see I was such a nice young woman. I kept telling myself that if I was just nice to her, she’d see that goodness, that humanity in me. Of course, her racist ass wasn’t going to see shit.

And all of that just exhausts me, it drains me. All of their hatred and ignorance is exhausting.This idea that it’s up to me to change them or people like them. That it is my responsibility to stop them from hating people of color or to teach them about the structure, history, or pervasiveness of racism in this country.

I have avoided the news more than I ever have since Trump has been elected. I have avoided reading about it. I have avoided it all.

I am tired of it, y’all. I am plain old tired.

Michelle Obama spoke about this country now knowing what it feels like to not have hope.

How can I disagree when I feel like I am losing my own?

*

How do you end an essay like this, y’all? How do you answer a question you don’t have the answers for?

Despite her jokes on us about needing more sun,  my mother never let my brothers and I forget who we were. Essence magazine was the only magazine subscription Mami made a point to keep, paying that annual bill so that images of Black excellence and beauty would come in our mailbox every month. In the midst of the popularity of white Blonde Barbie dolls, Mami bought me a Kenya doll and told me that I was beautiful and smart  just like her and I believed her. My parents spoke to us about what we were to face as we became adults, spoke to us about our history, our blood, our ancestry. I was shown pictures of my mother’s uncles, their dark skin like ink in the black and white photos and was told to never forget that along with Taino and Spanish, that I have African in my blood, in my ancestry. I was never deprived of representations of Blackness in my life because of my parents. I was surrounded by it. And I can’t thank them enough for providing me with those tools, that pride, that history.

I won’t defend my Blackness or feed into divisive conversations about how dark someone has to be to be considered Black. That’s ludicrous. We all need to stop doing that shit. That’s just the residues of  the divisive history of racism in this country and in the Caribbean. However, I will acknowledge that my experiences can and will never match those of darker-skinned women, of the history of African American women in this country and of darker-complected women in the Caribbean. But I can’t change that I am a woman of color. I can’t change that I am a Puerto Rican woman of color and quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to, even with the sadness and anger and frustration I feel.

We’re awesome and magic and powerful, y’all. We just are.

 

And if me existing pisses racist people off, well, mi gente, I’ma just keep doing that. I’m just going to be here, existing and shit and watching those asshats stare at me with disdain. Just like that bottle blonde pendeja in pink scrubs.

This time I will stare back and finally be just like my mother. Just like I’ve always wanted.

Completely unafraid of my Boricuaness. Of my Blackness.

Y’all stay Brown and Black and all that, you heard? So will I.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#52Essays2017 – Week Two – Changing Journals

I don’t feel guilty about leaving a journal only half finished because I believe in energy. I believe that chapters of our lives carry huge surges of energy and holding on to those surges, if only through ink and paper, may not always be the smartest thing to do. Though clearly, facing your shit may not always be the prettiest thing, sometimes you have to set it aside, walk away from it. Sometimes, journals exude the very energy you have put in them.  It doesn’t mean you’ll never go back, flip through the pages, cringe….cringe harder.  It just means, you need to shed some energy to create more.

Today, I changed my journal. It takes me awhile to connect with a journal. I have a whole box full of blank ones to choose from (most, beautifully enough, have been gifted to me), but the process takes some time. I don’t sit and ponder them. I grab one, carry it with me for some time and see how it”fits.” Sometimes, it doesn’t. Like the recent butterfly decorated one I used post-breakup and then post-breakup-breakup. There was a whole lot of energy in that fucker, let me tell you, and it was high time to shed that shit. So this weekend, suffering from sinus headaches and chills, I opened the box full of opportunity and  decided on a wide pink faux leather one with gold lettering that reads, “Live Each Day with Grace, Love, and Laughter.” I like the brand of journal because I like the thin lines and wide pages, the way the journal lies flat when I write so I don’t have to use my other hand to keep it open or worry about metal spirals coming undone. I’ve used the brand before. I had a mint-green one that read, “Make Things Happen” in gold lettering that has begun to wear off. That’s packed away somewhere with the others. Now, the writing has to happen. I plan on collaging these essays into the journal. This is a chapter after all,  is it not?

*

I think I own every journal I have ever written in. I keep them in their own labeled section of my writing stuff, each one dirtied from purses and handling, sparkling still with some form of embellishment as if they were jewels in a treasure box. Wait. I lied. There’s a small part of my life missing in my journals. My teenage years. I don’t have those.

*

I bought the journal when Columbus Circle was an open air market, before it became this shiny and marbled shopping and dining monstrosity for the privileged in the area. Okay, it’s pretty but I liked it better as an open air market and now it’s all shiny glass windows and has this aura of privilege and consumerism that stinks up the place. It took something away from that area when construction started there. It doesn’t even look like at one point, it was indeed an open air market, the one where I found that journal. I bought it at the start of my sophomore year in high school. I connected with it immediately. It looked like a heavy chapter book and it was covered in this gorgeous red fabric that reminded me of kimonos. The lines were thin and it was just so fucking pretty. I even bought a new pen, I think, just to use in it.

I wrote the first line on the very first page, “Today it has been a month since I lost my virginity.” I stopped writing and then kept going. And going. I carried that thing with me everywhere. I wrote things that really happened at school or at home. I wrote things that didn’t happen or kind of happened and made up names of characters and told stories. It was my closest confidant.

I wrote about the neighborhood boy who I had “done it” with, who I loved with such ardor it seared the pages. I wrote about the things going on in my family, a mess since we were all reeling in the grief of recent losses, about death, about my brothers getting on my nerves, Dad leaving, the anger and pain that hung from us like anchors, rooted in the same place. I wrote about Lucy, my mother’s best friend, who died in the winter I was 15, and I wrote about how when the EMTs took her out of her apartment on a stretcher, her eyes looked at me but didn’t see me. I wrote about how I ran to a friend’s house and cried raindrop tears while she stood holding her apartment door, unsure of how to comfort me. I wrote about leaving in shame and running back to my apartment building around the corner and running up the stairs to find my brother Justin, who rarely cries, his head leaning against his arm, his eyes swollen red and watery, telling me she was dead. I wrote about the yell that brought my oldest brother and his best friend up the stairs and all the neighbors heads poked out of their doors. I wrote about punching him in the chest until he gripped my wrists and yelled at me to stop. I wrote about knowing what this would do to us. To me, to Mami, to my brothers and father and to Cynthia, my best childhood friend and Lucy’s daughter. I wrote about meeting a boy, an older boy, who held me sometimes when I cried and who used closed fists on my arms and legs and didn’t care if it hurt. I wrote about my sadness because there was so much sadness around me I felt I didn’t need to give people more. I kept those secrets and stories in there.

My mother didn’t read that though. She read the first sentence. And that was that.

*

I can’t really tell you why I eventually threw that journal out or the others from back then. I know I felt ashamed. I know I felt disgusted with myself. I felt like an idiot. I felt like a liar. I felt I was too emotional in the pages. I threw it out in my early twenties, at a stage in my life, where money was flowing and a good time involved sky high heels and tits out and lots of drunk dancing and flirting. I was having a blast and I didn’t like the person on those pages. I thought she was weak. I thought I was better than her.

I was always her though. Sometimes, I still am.

*

It was the first hot night of the summer, late June, I think. I had just turned sixteen years old. I was outside with some neighbor girls from the building and we were devouring a huge bag of David sunflower seeds, spitting the shells into one huge gross pile on the sidewalk as we sat on the trunks of cars in front of the building. No one does that now. Sit on cars. We were laughing over something when I heard my mother’s whistle. It is a whistle I will never forget and a whistle that to to this day makes me turn my head when I hear it. It’s a whistle that uses the gap in her teeth, the gap I inherited, sucking in air until the sound pierces the air. I cringed. I was the youngest of the crew of girls and was always the first to have to go upstairs.

“Yeah, mami?” I looked up to our fourth floor window. It was early, the sun just set, the purple of the sky still tinged with coral. Why did she want me to go upstairs?

“Imani, come upstairs I have to talk to you.”

I stomped towards the building with my best this-is-so-fucked-up-you-never-let-me-do-anything face, eyes rolled already. When I got to our floor, she was standing by the door. That was weird. Uh-oh. What the hell did I do?

“Imani, close the door.”

I locked the door and then walked to my bedroom where my mother was waiting for me. When I see her, she is standing with all of my secrets in her hand. The red-fabric wrapped secrets I had left right on my bed, right there for her to open. She held the book up so that the light caught the red of the cover and left my face.

“So, you lost your virginity?”

“Uhhhh…ummmm….uhhhh..” I expected a smack in the face. I expected yelling. She dropped the book on the bed.

“You should be ashamed of yourself, Imani. How can you not tell me this? I’m your mother,” she said and I could see the hurt shimmering under the rage in her eyes.

“Why did you read my journal? Why?” I was crying. I was crying because I knew there was more in that journal than that first line. I knew what that journal was. Sure, I felt guilty about not sharing that I had lost my virginity with her, but I felt more guilty about what I knew was in there, what I was scared she had read. The stories of us. The stories I made up and the ones that were real. About my kind-of-sort-of boyfriend who I spent some evenings with throughout the school week instead of studying like I told her, who left bruises on my arms so my brothers wouldn’t see.  The ones about Lucy. Her best friend. About that day and about Dad and about roses that never grew in the neighbor’s yard and how I wondered if that was a sign that I should have paid attention to. I knew what that would do to her.

“I thought it was stories. I thought you were writing your stories,” she said, her own tears rimming her eyes.

In hindsight, I can say that I’m sure that is exactly what she thought. I wrote chapter books in composition notebooks all throughout middle school, inspired by my avid reading of R.L. Stine. I still have some of those composition notebooks. I giggle at that girl. She was cute. Knowing this, I know that when she opened it, she did so with the intentions of sneaking a read of her daughter’s storytelling and found something real and uncomfortable to read. And in that reading, she gave me my shame. She still tells me all the time, “We both learned lessons that night, Imani.”

We argued for the rest of the night, I think. I don’t remember. I remember putting it in a drawer and not writing in a journal for months before buying a new one and writing in fourteen pages and then buying another and writing in it for fifty. I changed journals and hid them because I was hiding.

I was making sure no one would see it all in one place again.

*

I don’t think I am hiding anymore when I change journals so abruptly. I don’t feel shame about what I write in my journals any more though I am fiercely protective of them and will leave a relationship or end a friendship if that line is ever crossed. My journals remain my vault of deepest secrets and thoughts. But, I  do lament chucking that red-fabric little nugget of teenage secrets because I could learn so much from her. I could forgive her by reading her words. I think about my mother and finding out that one secret and how I told myself for years, “At least she didn’t read the rest of it.”

Honestly, I don’t know if she did.

Now she doesn’t have to.

*

I stared at the page when I opened my chosen journal today and wrote in blue ink, “I’m hoping that I can use this journal for cultivating better energy, better intentions. I’m hoping there is some healing in here.”

When it comes to my journals, changing often means growing.

 

#52Essays2017- Week 1-“Is this why you’re still single?”

“All too often women believe it is a sign of commitment, an expression of love, to endure unkindness or cruelty, to forgive and forget. In actuality, when we love rightly we know that the healthy, loving response to cruelty and abuse is putting ourselves out of harm’s way.”
― bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions

*

He said all the right shit. And he talked a whole lot of it, too. I can’t front, my interest was peaked by what he said. The whole idea of a man catering to me and what I need, the idea of a man telling me that his ultimate goal in a relationship was to make his lady happy and attend to her needs as best as he could appealed to me.

I mean, fuck, who wouldn’t that appeal to?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a naive idiot. We all know there’s a whole lot of give and take in any relationship, but on some real shit, in most of my relationships it has usually been pretty one-sided in the effort department. I always end up taking care of someone or trying to light a fire under their ass or comforting them. I’m not saying they didn’t care. I’m saying they didn’t try.

This guy wasn’t the answer to my prayers, but after a string of yawns and eye rolls, he was talking quite the good game.

*

It is New Years Day. He says he wants to see me, that he wanted to spend a few hours with me before he went to work at the bar where he was a bouncer. Tells me he is skipping the gym and this should prove to me how much he likes me. According to him, it’s a huge sacrifice for him and something that’s a big deal apparently. I don’t know. Never the gym rat, I recently have been the type to work out by sitting up when I read or lifting my coffee to my mouth. Anyway, he says he wants to see me and I am with it. We have recently just connected and he has peaked my interest and I am excited for the getting to know each other chapter.

I dress carefully, putting on some of the new duds I had splurged on as my Christmas present to myself, use my good smelling lotion and perfume, apply my makeup with care. I feel good. Real good. And damn it, I look good as shit, too.

He calls me and when I mention facetiously that I got cute for him, he says, “Oh, I am in sweats. Who told you this was a date?”

Ummmmmmmmm….say what?

“Well, I assumed we would be going to a place where we could sit and eat and talk. I didn’t think that we’d be getting something to grab and go.”

“I’m a grab and go kind of guy, ma. Besides, I don’t eat anything heavy after 2:00 or 2:30pm.” I look at the cable box, 4:30pm. Okay, I guess a nice dinner spot is out.

There is a small pause before he speaks again. “You know what I really been feigning for? Cuchifrito. Let’s go to Harlem and get cuchifrito.”

Wait. “You don’t eat heavy after 2:00pm but you want to go get cuchifrito?”

“I didn’t say that. I said I don’t eat full meals. Are you listening to me?”

I feel my eye twitch a little. Was he serious?

The fucked up part is….I let that shit rock.

*

The most frustrating thing about being gaslighted is that what you know to be true is argued as false. Gaslighting is a thing, y’all. A big thing actually.

Didn’t you ever ask yourself if you were bugging when they spoke to you? Didn’t you ever brush it off at first as just a weird and awkward moment? Didn’t you ever begin to feel adamant that you heard what you heard yet they still made it seem as if it were just confused and jumbled in your brain? Didn’t that shit drive you crazy? Didn’t you sometimes have to stop and breathe and go over it all in your brain to reassure yourself?

Didn’t that shit fuck you up? The doubt? The doubt in yourself? As if you couldn’t believe yourself? What the hell is that shit about, huh?

And didn’t they just rub that shit in?

The term “gaslighting,” comes from a 1944 Ingrid Bergman film that is about a woman whose husband slowly manipulates her into believing that she is going insane. Think about that for a moment. He makes her think she is going crazy.

The word “manipulate,” means “to handle or control with skill, to control or influence unfairly.”

To handle or control.

Whenever it occurs to me that I am being gaslighted, I remind myself that it is merely a feeble attempt to control me.

But it has to occur to me first.

*

When he picks me up, he doesn’t get out of the car to greet me the way he did the other night. Instead, he waits until I’m in the car to ask me again what I want to eat.

“I thought you wanted cuchifrito.”

“No, baby. It’s whatever you want.” He pauses. “You really don’t listen, do you?”

“Well, it’s New Years Day. I don’t know what’s open.”

“I’m not trying to do anything crazy. I mean, I’m in sweats and shit.”

I bring up a favorite pizza place in the neighborhood that I mentioned in a previous conversation. He shrugs. I try again. “Let’s drive and see what’s open.”

“Why didn’t you decide this before?”

I feel my eye twitch again. “Like I said, I don’t know what’s open. It’s New Years Day. ”

We drive by a Mexican spot I love. He grimaces. “Hell no, I ain’t eating Mexican right now. I told you I don’t eat heavy after a certain time.”

We drive by a diner. Another grimace from him. “A diner? Really?”

Deciding on pizza in my mind, I ask him to pull over so I can get the address for the pizza spot so it will be an easier drive for him, a Bronx novice. He sighs. “I really don’t understand why you didn’t do this when you were at home.”

I choose not to repeat myself but feel the anxiety creeping up my toes. Is this happening or am I bugging? This is weird but I must be bugging because he likes me, we connect, he can’t be serious. Maybe I just have to get used to his personality.

He turns to me as I am pulling up the address on my phone. “You seem agitated.”

“I’m not. Let’s just figure this out.”

“Why can’t you just be real and admit that you’re upset? If we’re going to date I can’t have you getting upset with me for every little thing. I am so tired of over-sensitive women. I am so done with women who do that shit. I wish I could just find someone who can keep it real.”

My eye was fluttering. Fucking fluttering, y’all.

*

We drive to the pizza place and pull up in front.

“This is it? This rinky-dink place is it? I mean, call me materialistic or whatever but I thought it would be a nice place. This is just a regular ass pizza spot.”

“You said you were grab and go. You said you didn’t want a full meal. I’m kind of unsure what you want.”

“See? Keep it real with me. I know you’re upset. I keep telling you to decide on what you want and you’re getting upset with me because you can’t make up your mind. Just keep it real and tell me if you’re pissed off.”

“I am getting there, yes…because every suggestion I’ve made you have balked at. I am trying to do what you’d like and I am at a real loss now.”

“I want to do what you want to do, baby. How many times do I have to tell you that?”

What the fuck is happening here?

 “Look, you mentioned cuchifrito. Let’s just go get cuchifrito in Harlem.”

“No, let’s do pizza. I’m not trying to drive down there.”

*

“Gaslighting means telling people that they’re not really thinking, feeling, or perceiving what they are. Its very often used toward women due to the assumption that women are too sensitive and that, especially when we’re calling out sexism, we’re overreacting.” – Suzannah Weiss, bustle.com, 1/9/2017

I am not crazy. I am not over-sensitive. I am not over-thinking. I am not over-reacting. I am not too much. I am not being emotional. I am not a psycho. I am not being a pain in the ass. I am not difficult. I do not like to argue. I am not too strong.

*

We eat in silence. I tell him to choose what we do after we eat since he didn’t have to be at the bar where he bounced until 11:00 pm. He tells me all he wants is to be with me. We get into his car and he comments that the pizza was just okay. That shit makes me cringe a little because for a New Yorker, sharing your favorite pizza place with someone is a big deal. This dude was for sure a New Jersey cat. I shrug. I liked it. I was content.

He asks me to direct him back to my house so that we can figure out what to do parked in front of there because he doesn’t want to be parked in front of this “hood ass pizza spot.” I shrug. Whatever.

When we get to my house, he puts his hand on my thigh and asks to use the bathroom. I oblige. I wasn’t scared of this man. I was annoyed by him. Not scared. He tells me that he thought we’d end up here, and smirks.

The smirk is more annoying than anything.

*

I don’t know who can be considered too strong. What is that? Why is it a bad thing for me to be strong? Why do men say they prefer women to have a voice, to have a mind, to have thought and opinion but when faced with it, say that we are “too strong” or “too aggressive?” What the fuck is that about?

Do you know how many times men have said that to me?

“You’re too strong.”

“You need to calm down.”

“You must like to argue.”

“You should relax.”

“Be easy, ma.”

All this when I speak. All of this when I respond. Wow.

*

When he comes out of my bathroom, I am sitting in the kitchen, hooking up my small bluetooth speaker to my phone. He sits at the table with me and stares at me.

“You seem upset.”

“No, I’m fine. Just want to hook the music up if we’re going to chill here.” I was already eyeing a bottle of red zinfandel in my wine rack.

“You’re full of shit. Full of shit.”

Did this man just curse at me in my own home?

“Excuse me? How are you telling me how I feel? You’re not in my brain. I am not upset at all.”

“I didn’t say you were upset. I said you ‘seem’ upset. You read books, that’s your thing, right? You should know what the word ‘seem’ means.”

Nah. Nah. This ain’t for real. He just HAS to be fucking with me. 

“I am not upset. But this conversation is beginning to get to me. I don’t know what to do or say to end this. You let me know.”

“I don’t fucking believe you. Wow. I’m so tired of women acting like this. So fucking sensitive and always getting mad about everything. I need to know if you’re a psycho because I can’t deal with another psycho.”

I stare at him in disbelief. I lean back in my chair and cross my arms. It’s the first time I have really taken full stock of him. He is a tall man, with big muscular arms and a small belly that was once a six-pack. His face is pock-marked and he is showing the first signs of a double-chin. He’s a washed up papi chulo and I know it, knew it all along. None of this had bothered me before. I was into him and what we had spoken about. I liked him and what he was showing me on the inside. But now, hearing the passive aggressive bullshit frothing from his lips made him the fucking Elephant Man. Except I’m pretty sure John Merrick was a lot fucking nicer than he was being, I’ll tell you that.

“See? Look at how you’re sitting in your chair. You must not be ready for a relationship because real relationships, young lady, mean you might not always be happy with me. It means being honest about what you’re feeling.”

“But I am being honest! I haven’t said anything about being upset. I have done nothing today but try to accommodate and compromise with you. Nothing has worked. But I am very uncomfortable with the way you are talking to me.”

I was at the point of aggravation and when I’m aggravated, I say what I need to say. Punto.

“You need to lower your voice a decimal before you talk to me. Why are you so aggressive? Is this why you’re still single?”

OH HELL NO.

I stand. “This isn’t going to work out. You’re going to have to go.”

And like a child who has been denied candy, he storms out of my apartment, huffy and puffy, not looking at me as he grabs his shit.

Good riddance, pendejo. 

I slam the door behind him and call my mother to tell her about it.

As I’m on the phone with Mami, he starts to call me…one….two…three.four..five times. Texts me eighteen times in a row. He’s apologetic now. Tells me I didn’t deserve that, that he felt horrible about it because he felt he failed me and was trying so hard since he picked me up to impress me.

I read my mother the texts and she is aghast at the blatant manipulation.

“What the hell is wrong with this guy?”

“Shit if I know.”

He texts me again that “if you truly want me to then @ least text me the words (leave me alone) and I’ll respect your space.”

My mother insists that ignoring him will make him leave me alone. I know better. I’ve been here before. He will not stop until I respond. He will probably even go so far as to insult me if I don’t respond. If I give him any kind of leeway, he will drip sugar all over his words until the sweetness is blinding me. I will not allow this to happen. If he wants me to tell him to leave me alone, bueno, papito, I’ll do just fucking that.

“I don’t think our personalities mesh well and tonight showed that to me. I am no longer interested in being made to feel that way. Please leave me alone.”

He hasn’t hit me up since. Mami says I was too nice to “el maldito pendejo.”

I might have to agree.

*

I saw a meme once using the words of a woman named Portia Nelson, that reads as follows:

“Chapter One of My Life. I walk down the street. There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in.
I am lost. I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It still takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter Two. I walk down the same street. There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I’m in the same place! But it isn’t my fault. And it still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter Three. I walk down the same street. There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it there. I still fall in. It’s a habit! My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter Four. I walk down the same street. There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

Chapter Five. I walk down a different street.”

If this is not the very story of my love life. I would fake the funk like I was at chapter five, this confident and take-no-bullshit kind of woman, but the reality is this.

I had no idea that for the longest time, I have been stuck in Chapter 3. I knew the sheer fucked-up-edness (yep, I made a word) of it all, of the behavior of the men that came into my life and was still stuck in the damn hole. Still climbing out of it. It has always been a process of getting in the hole and then getting out. I have been reading this chapter for years.

I thought it was me. I told myself for a long time that maybe I really wasn’t prepared to be involved with someone. Maybe I am just not cut out for being in a relationship. Maybe I am too difficult to be with someone and deserve to be alone. I told myself that I had to pick and choose my battles and be conscious of their feelings, even if it meant silencing mine. When a then-boyfriend asked me once if I liked to argue when I brought up something that bothered me, I beat myself up and told myself I wasn’t being a good girlfriend to him, that I was mean and bitter. I tried to figure out why I was so angry. I blamed myself. I was going crazy.

I never knew this was all one big mind-fuck from the same man with different faces. I never knew that while I thought I wasn’t….I was dating the same man. I was dating the same scenario. I was fighting the same fight. I was clawing out of the hole every single time.

I don’t know if I am at chapter 4 or chapter 5. I can say that I am working on it. I can say that I am aware that if I am uncomfortable or feel disrespected in any way, that I am not crazy or over-emotional. That I have every right to speak on how I feel when I feel that way without being told I am being “aggressive” or “too strong.” That I do listen and that I must listen…to my gut. That I am a sublime being with the potential to love and to be loved and that I deserve that. That I am figuring out what I can do to be a better partner by learning how to be a better person.

And before you kill me with the cliche and trite ass “Stop looking and it will come to you” nonsense that so many people that are in relationships like to tell me, let me remind you that this kind of work is not being done with the sole anticipation of “finding someone.” I am deserving of the kind of love I know I am offering. Not only am I deserving of it. I am ready for it.

But I’m not searching. I am not pushing or praying for someone to change and I won’t settle for someone just because he’s nicer than the last guy. I am not waiting to be saved or protected or redeemed, because I save and protect and redeem myself every day.

This work on myself is done with the knowledge that I am unlearning all of the bullshit and insecurities that was garnered over years and years of being in that damn hole.

Fuck that hole, b.

 

 

Poetry Porn

I recently had the honor of performing at an amazing art event for my solar sister, Rhonda Rae.  She asked me to perform the piece for this show because I , apparently am one of the women who has inspired her. I was blown away by that. To be an artist is a constant struggle with yourself…asking if you’re making an impact or if anyone is even paying attention. Rhonda reminded me that not only did she pay attention, but she loved me. That’s dope and it was an HONOR to perform at her event.

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I chose one of her art pieces as inspiration for the poem I wanted to perform. I haven’t written poetry in AGES, y’all. And I certainly hadn’t performed any in YEARS. But the piece she showed me (which sadly, I don’t own….yet…LOL), inspired me on a lot of levels.

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The piece is called “Solar Sister” and the first thing I thought of when I saw this piece is “God, I LOVE yellow.” LOL. Nah. The picture I have posted does it NO justice. There are deep layers of color here, streaks of ochre amidst canary yellow, a thin strip of yellow beads resembling a scar, the shimmer of a golden circle. I LOVE this piece and it got me thinking of the sun and it’s power and the solar chakra, the chakra of will power and control. I thought of Oshun, the orisha of beauty and art and fresh water…how she is stunning but not one to fuck around with. I thought of my mother and my grandmother and the way they asserted their power, how they reminded people they were not the ones to fuck with. I thought of how I asserted that power. I thought of the source of that power and where its roots are.

Out of that inspiration, came this piece. Thank you, Rhonda for allowing me to grace the stage at your event. Thank you for nudging me to write poetry again. Thank you for your inspiration and kindness and love.

SIDE NOTE: Rhonda is having her closing event for Resilience: Across the Spectrum THIS SATURDAY, October 8th, 2016 from 3pm-8pm at MorePointsBX, 527 Faile Street, Bronx, NY 10474. Come through and show some love. I’ll be there collecting books for an event of my own (post on that coming soon). 

Where the Belly Meets the Root

Inside of me, deep down,
where the belly meets the root,
is a sunstone woman…
una guerrera….
She is slow to blaze,
speaking honey then flames…
her roar consumes like backdraft when she goes unheeded.

She stood on the shoulders
of a canary silk dress years before she was mine…
His hand spoke,
plancha hot on the back of her neck….
“You go this way because I say so.
Your sunshine curves over melao
and I can’t control the looks men give you when you wear butter on your thighs…
sweet witch who talks to wisps of spirits in the ether.
Don’t talk to them…
they’ll tell you the truth about me…
I’m not the man you think I am…
But I’ll stomp out the embers you think you got burning.
Fuck sunshine,
you wear what I say.
You talk when I say.
You fuck when I say.
Now walk.”

She left scorched earth across his face
that night when she fought back.

Arrogant Icarus…
You walk the surface of the sun and she’ll burn you.

Years before she sat in my belly,
she whittled the curve of shoulder blades that pressed into iron car doors..
Serpentine hand over throat made of heat,
Fingertips rise to cover lips, it hisses…
“Why you acting like that? All hot under the collar….
Just shut the fuck up…
You know you want this.”
Palms sear when she burns him,
scratches skin so clear the welts rise like flames…
“Don’t. Fucking. Touch. My. Face. Cabron.
I don’t want SHIT from you!”

Gifted to me at birth,
this warrior woman sat,
where the belly meets the root….
and knew all along that hands would try to smother her again….
Is her shine so much they have to contain it?
Is her fire so uncontrollable they fear for their lives?
Are they so fragile they can not see she lights up the world?
So, she warned me….
of hands that soon sat heavy on my thighs, squeezing,
“I’ll take your honey, Sunshine.
And I’ll strip you down to beams of light…
because your fire is mine.”

I played them dust,
whispered embers in their ears,
left them standing in their ashes…
soot underfoot they are charcoal memory in my rearview mirror.
Let me remind you that even the fire tastes sweet.

Un incendio en esa mujer, they say.
A fire in her belly,
Just look at her eyes.
Woman who cannot be doused…
She is fuel…
flicker, flame, fire…
furious at attempts to stamp her out…
She reminds them all…
you can’t control a wildfire for long.

A Story about a Broken Clutch: The Fear of Saying No, Victim-Blaming & Culprit Coddling

I am going to tell y’all a true story. There’s a lot to it, so read on and bear with me. There’s a point, I swear.

It was a cold ass night back in…..gosh, I forget, 2008….2009? I mean, bitterly fucking cold. The kind of cold that is painful, that hurts your feet and fingers, makes you long for summer. My homegirl and I, like most weekends back then, had decided to hit up our regular haunt and brought hot chocolate to the bouncers we knew at the front door, forced to stand in the nasty cold. They, of course, were grateful and their gratitude meant we didn’t have to wait on a line outside in the cold. Score! As soon as we passed the metal detectors and paid our (discounted) door fee, we got on the coat check line. My homegirl was doing the pee-pee dance, squirming from foot to foot as we waited, so we agreed that I would check our coats and she would use the bathroom. She texted me that one of the bouncers we knew let her use the VIP bathroom, which was up a short flight of steep stairs and overlooked the general dance floor of the club.

After checking the coats, I made my way through the club and  waited for my homegirl at the foot of the steps that led to VIP, leaning against a banister that overlooked the dance floor. I was alone, watching people gyrating and grooving, trying to hype myself up for the night. That’s when a man approached me.

He came up from behind me and rubbed himself against me, whispering hotly into my ear that I wanted to dance. Not “Do you want to dance?” but “You want to dance.” I turned to face him and said, “No thanks, man,” my hand on his chest without force. He was tall, towering taller than my 5 foot 10 inches, with a square jaw and broad shoulders with pale, pasty skin. He was also utterly drunk as shit. He grabbed my waist and pulled me close to him so that I could feel his semi-hard penis and repeated, his hot breath all on my ear lobe, “C’mon baby, you want to dance with me. Stop it.” I pressed my hand against his chest a little harder and managed to pull away, saying again, “No thanks, I’m good.” He again, pulled me to him, his hands groping my ass, gyrating his hips, his breath stale with alcohol. I pushed him away from me much harder this time (I think there was an elbow thrown in there) and said forcefully, “I said NO!” I turned away to get the attention of one of the bouncers I knew. And that’s when it happened.

Pasty dude grabbed a fistful of my hair and pulled me so hard that I fell to the floor. He then got on top of me and banged my head on the ground a few times. I desperately kicked him away as his friends came and dragged him off. I watched as they walked away with him, arms around him, as if HE needed the help, offering him support as I was on the floor. As if HE was the one that had been violated and attacked. I stood up and watched as people laughed at ME, smirking and giggling as if my pain and my violation had been a highlight of their night.

And then my Bronx card came out.

I had an expensive tan leather clutch with me that night. It had this intricate and sturdy metal frame and the leather had been dyed this amazing brown that seemed to match my favorite boots perfectly. I LOVED that fucking clutch. I had spent nearly an entire paycheck to get it. My anger seized me as I watched him walking away, as I watched people laughing and not asking if I was okay, if I needed help. My anger pushed my legs towards them as they walked away. I proceeded to bend my beautiful metal-framed clutch over his head. He turned and overpowered me and again pulled me by my hair until I was on the floor, banging my head against the ground until I was dizzy. His friends grabbed him by his shoulders, urging him to move so the bouncers wouldn’t grab them up. I scrambled up when they started for the door and found a bouncer, yelling, “He hit me! That guy just hit me!” Bouncers appeared everywhere all of a sudden and grabbed up pasty dude, walking him up a flight of stairs that led to the exit of the nightclub. I ran to them as they talked to him and crying, I yelled in his face, “Why? Why did you hit me when I just didn’t want to dance?” I’ll never forget his smirk and the way he spat out, “You hit me first.”

My pushing him away that last time, me finally getting forceful after two failed attempts of being chill and tranquila about saying no, was me “hitting” him first. Can you fucking believe that shit, b?

I pulled out my Bronx card again.

Rest in peace to my beautiful metal framed clutch as I slapped pasty dude with it.

He lunged at me and ripped my top, yanking on my hair and yelling the word “Bitch!” in my face. It took three bouncers to get this man off of me. When they finally were able to get him off of me, two women who had been watching (I forget their names but may the Universe bless them forever), grabbed me close to them, smoothing my hair and hugging me, telling me that I was going to be okay. I started sobbing. The kindness was overwhelming. Soon, my homegirl came bounding up the stairs, yelling for me. Coming out of the bathroom, one of the bouncers had told her what happened and she had raced around the club looking for me. And there we all were, four women crying and hugging in a nightclub.

My top was ripped and I was sobbing. Not as fun of a night as we had originally intended. So, we left. On the way home, we picked up my homegirl’s at-the-time paramour. Let’s call him Elmer Fudd, because quite honestly, I forgot his damn name and you’ll see why I don’t care for him in a bit. I slid in the back seat, still shaking and crying. My homegirl starts to tell Elmer Fudd about what happened, giving him details about this guy and how fucked up it all was and so on and so on.

“Well, what did she do that he did that?” His question silenced my tears.

They stopped dating that night for some other shit, but I don’t think that question helped.

Okay, here’s why I tell you this story. Recently, I read about a young woman named Tiarah Poyau, a graduate student, who just like me all those years ago, was out with friends at Brooklyn’s 2016 West Indian J’Ouvert festival for a fun night out. All she said to her murderer was “Get off me,” when he came over and began to grind on her without asking her to dance. “Get off me.” That’s what she said to get shot, close range, in the eye. She died because a man couldn’t take rejection. You’d be surprised at some of the responses to this murder that I’ve read in comment threads. The “Why didn’t she just dance with him?” or the “She must’ve said some other crazy shit” comments are the most sickening.

The term victim-blaming is defined as a devaluing act where the victim of a crime, an accident, or any type of abusive maltreatment is held as wholly or partially responsible for the wrongful conduct committed against them.” Tiarah said “Get off me,” and she was killed for it. I said “No thanks, man,” and pasty dude felt it was okay to physically assault me. Countless rapes and assaults are devalued with victim-blaming. Shit, Kim Kardashian was robbed at gunpoint this past weekend and motherfuckers was victim-blaming HER, as if her infamous (and boring) sex tape, her vapidity, and her riches are all valid and legit reasons why it’s okay for someone to put a gun to her face. I have no interest in the Kardashians (and admittedly made a shameful joke about watching the robbery on her show which I have acknowledged and apologized for), but as a victim of an attempted home invasion myself, that shit is traumatizing and scary and it’s NOT her fault. That’s NOT okay to say it’s her fault or she deserved it. NOPE.

You gotta understand, victim-blaming is just another tool of the patriarchy. Take the Brock Turner case and how the victim’s drinking was questioned, her sexual relationship with her boyfriend analyzed and critiqued. Dude sexually assaulted her when she was PASSED OUT and UNCONSCIOUS and yet, it’s still homegirl’s fault somehow. This kind of thinking is dangerous and perpetuates not just rape culture, which itself is a clusterfuck of disgusting, but perpetuates the fear women have of just fucking saying NO. Saying NO can get us shot and killed, physically assaulted, raped, robbed, what have you and then for some odd and insane reason, WE are blamed for being brutalized and traumatized. Does that make sense to YOU? Because it sure as fuck doesn’t make one iota of sense to me.

I left a part out of my story. As my homegirl and I were preparing ourselves to leave the nightclub after my assault, a female friend of my attacker approached me and timidly said, “I’m sorry. He’s not like that. He’s not violent with women, it’s just the alcohol.” Of course, the two women who had hugged me and my homegirl went bananas on the girl, but in hindsight, I feel bad for her. Her idea of this man she knew personally, this man she maybe loved or cared for, was shot to fucking hell. Sure, she tried to meekly defend him, but I am sure she was all, “What the fuck? Who ARE you?” after that night. Shit,  I mean, I would have.

His homegirl’s behavior though, is just as dangerous as victim-blaming. Let’s call it “Culprit-Coddling.” It’s the reason why this kind of shit is always perpetuated. It’s the reason why Elmer Fudd felt it necessary to ask what I did that led to my assault. It’s this kind of shit that encourages men to act this way, perpetuates this idea that men are merely thoughtless animals with no self-control which in and of itself, is a tool of patriarchy. Men are NOT thoughtless and they are certainly NOT animals. Saying, “Oh, he’s a good guy, he’s not like that usually,” only traumatizes the victim further, except on an entirely different level of fucked-up because it compounds the victim-blaming. He couldn’t do that, he didn’t mean it, he’s a good guy just means you’re bugging, that never happened, or something you did sparked him off.

His friend, I know, was essentially trying to be a good friend to him. I can’t blame her, really. I mean, how would I behave if it was one of my brothers, one of my male friends, one of my cousins that acted like an asshole? I know how. I would defend them if they didn’t deserve the accusation, of course, but if they clearly victimized someone, I wouldn’t try to get them out of it by talking about how good of a person they are. Sure, I love them and I will always love them, I will die for my brothers. But if they fucked up, I can only speak about my love for them and not their actions. I would have no defense for them if they clearly and blatantly hurt someone. I can only love them and support them in the hole they dug for themselves. It’s like that. They would certainly get an earful from me, that’s for sure.

What should happen is discussions with young men on consent, shit…with older men. Teach our sons about consent instead of teaching our daughters to be prepared to die for saying no. Consent is literally giving permission for something to happen. There is no such thing as non-verbal consent and that kind of patriarchal hogwash is an entirely different fucking essay. Teach our boys that it is NOT okay to lash out after rejection, that they will NOT be coddled if they hurt someone, that they are going to be held accountable for their actions. That a woman is not property, or a voiceless object, or something to claim or conquer. Teach them that they DO have thoughts and compassion and empathy and self-control. Teach them that.

And here’s some advice to everyone, women AND men. Please note, that for this specific piece, I am discussing men who are the victimizers, but this advice is applicable to anyone who cares for someone who has come out of pocket and harmed someone else: If your friends, sons, cousins, brothers, fathers, husbands, have clearly victimized someone, there is NO excuse. Alcohol or drugs does not excuse it. Their past does not excuse it. Their own pain does not excuse it. Acknowledge that they done fucked up and show empathy to the victim. Stop coddling fucked up behavior. I will thank you. Brock Turner’s victim will thank you. Tiarah Poyau will thank you. Countless women who have been blamed for their trauma will thank you.

I can tell you, I went back to that nightclub a few weeks later. My mother couldn’t believe I would bother to go back there, that I should be too embarrassed to want to ever go back there.  As if his attack was something I should be ashamed about. Fuck that…fuck all of that. I wasn’t going to let that pendejo take my fun away. I wasn’t going to stay his victim. So, I went back and partied my ass off with a pair of small gold boxing gloves attached to my belt as a joke to my last visit.

 

 

 

 

6 Train – A Tuesday Afternoon

On the 6 train as I was heading to work, a young man was asking for money, saying he was hungry. He didn’t smell bad or have on dirty clothes. So, not many people offered him change.

Nonetheless, I apologized and told him I didn’t have change (I didn’t). I had a donut and was going to offer it to him but he had already gone to the next car.

Two men started saying “Don’t feel bad. He is probably going to use the money to get high.”

My response was simple. “I wasn’t raised to pass judgment. What would giving him the change in your pocket hurt? If he is using it for drugs or drink,  those are the demons HE has to deal with. What kind of demons do you have that makes you turn your nose up at someone who says he was hungry?”

Of course, they came back with the “If you’re down and out, you get benefits from the country. You can fix your life” argument.

I responded, “You never know someone else’s story. You never know what they’re dealing with and it is not your job to pass judgment,  it is your job to make sure your spirit is cultivating kindness. These young people on the train seeing you so quick to be unkind see the example you set and will continue that example. I wasn’t taught that. You can’t sit there and praise God or whatever and then be unkind to someone less fortunate. Pull the change out and give. That’s all the universe is asking because the wealth that you have now…the roof over your head, the food in your belly, the clothes on your back, the change in your pocket can be easily taken from you. I pray that you never have to endure the shame you so easily cast on those that are asking for help.”

I started to ignore them and went back to reading when an older man sitting in front of me says, “You’ve set a good example, young lady.  I’ve worked with the homeless and the needy for years and it’s a shame how many people don’t feel like you do….don’t see that helping others helps us. I feel better hearing someone your age speak with such heart.”

Word.

My Crappy State of Awareness

“You know, being aware of your crap and actually overcoming your crap are two very different things.” 

-Dr. Cristina Yang as played by Sandra Oh on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy”

*

I don’t write about my anxiety. I never have. I have posted Facebook statuses about it, I have shared articles and memes about it, and I have been open about coping with it. But I have never written about it. It was only until one day, on the phone with sister-friend Vanessa, sobbing about it that she said softly, “Mama, maybe that’s what you should be writing about.”

I started a piece recently that is now on its fifth or so draft that has me reeling, spinning like a top. Writing about the roots of my anxiety have caused anxiety. How fucked is that? I didn’t really think as I wrote the first draft of it. I just told and didn’t show a damn thing. I had to tell it before I showed it. I tried my best not to focus on anyone that I was writing about, tried my best not to worry about what may happen after the piece was written. I tried not to think about who would be angry or hurt, who’d drill me with guilt and ridicule. I didn’t want to wrap my head around what people would say.

As it’s been workshopped and edited, I began to struggle with the idea of writing it. I remember being told that one part of it, a part that to this day when I read it I get shaky, didn’t express my terror enough. Admittedly, I was aghast that someone could not feel what I felt as I wrote/read it. I mean, this was the scariest moment of my life! But, I had to step away from my emotions again and think like a writer. This wasn’t about me. And perhaps, that’s hard to understand. But, writing makes you see that emotion sparks it, but craft is what molds it. Can you dig that?

No matter what I have to do as a writer, this is my emotional truth. This is what I need to do. Write from the wound, right from the wound, as the Jedi Masters have so often told me.

That same sister-friend tells me all the time how guilt-ridden I am. How I apologize too often and worry about things that need not be worried about. I cringe when she says it, mostly because I know she is kind of right. I don’t know where this guilt came from. The constant and nagging feeling that I am failing the people around me, that I am a burden on the people around me, that I am not the granddaughter-daughter-sister-cousin-niece-friend-lover-writer-woman I should be.

Damn that word “should.” That word alone can send me into a trembling, stomach-flipping mess.
*
A few tips on how to react if I have an anxiety attack in front of you:

I am not over-reacting. I am not pretending I am a star in a novela. I am not acting crazy. I am not a loca. I am not wilding out. This is a real and physical thing and it is excruciating and hard. The dismissal is insulting and deeply hurtful. Stop that shit. Please.

I can not relax or chill or be easy. That implies I can control what is happening, which I cannot. Do not say those things to me. I will only get worse. I will only believe that I am getting you upset, mad, sad, or worried and I will spiral into a deeper attack. Stop that shit. Please.

I am ashamed and embarrassed when they happen. I have had them on girls night out, during workouts, on dates, in the middle of class, in the middle of teaching. People have asked me why I get attacks, what triggers them. I don’t know most times. Sometimes, it just fucking happens. It is nothing you did. It is nothing that I am doing. It is nothing that is happening.

Please try to understand. If I could control what was happening, I wouldn’t have them. Offer me kindness. Your presence is far more than enough of a comfort than you think. Most times, if I feel it coming, I try to excuse myself. Sometimes, I won’t be able to do that. Offer me a glass of water. Tell me everything will be okay, that I am alright, that we are alright, that my mother is alright. JUST TELL ME EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIGHT.

*

Every day during the week-long workshops at VONA, participants are asked to write on a huge sheet of paper that has a daily question. One day, I believe was “What is your biggest fear?”

I wrote when no one was watching.

“That my anxiety will kill me.”

VONA changed my life. I knew from the moment I was able to write those words that I am never going to be the same woman again. Not just in my writing life, though that has changed as well in ways that I am still working through. But VONA gave me a community that nurtured me, spiritual kin from all corners and all places.

Case in point. As I finished my Bachelor’s degree, I found out I was accepted into VONA. I was over the moon about it. Anxiety stretched me thin in the days before I finished my last set of final papers and exams. I decided to be open about it on Facebook. This was probably one of the first times I ever shared that I was coping with anxiety. Sharline, a VONA veteran, responded to my Facebook status with a simple “You are not alone.” On different coasts, Sharline and I had never met. We had never broken bread together or shared secrets. She sent me a link to her own work. That exchange shaped how I approached talking about my anxiety.

I went to VONA with the belief that now that my degree was finished, I was chilling. I landed in the Bay after a very drunken thirtieth birthday thinking that I was finally saved from the incessant attacks. I was wrong in a big way. I balanced giving myself with isolating myself. I was asked a number of times if I was okay, asked why I was always alone. While others participated in a poetry salon one night, I was sitting alone in my room staring at the screen of my laptop urging myself to write something, when I felt the floor light up with heat under my soles. I was surprised by it. I tried to stop it. I paced. I did jumping jacks. I did breathing exercises. I imagined soft oceans and palm trees. I hummed “Three Little Birds.” Nothing was helping.

I walked out and towards the poetry salon, hoping that hearing people reading their work could help me come back down. I avoided everyone’s eyes as I tried to situate myself in the lounge. I was shaking, pale. Sister-friend Vanessa catches eyes with me, motions for me to join her where she is sitting. I ignore her at first. She’s persistent enough that I walk over to her and sit on the floor. I immediately begin to cry silent tears. She doesn’t say anything, just pats my hand and offers me Kleenex. On the way out, I see brother-friend Miguel who gives my hand a squeeze at the sight of my puffy eyes. I was relieved that no one said anything, no one made me feel awkward and uncomfortable. They offered me kindness and patience.

Every single time I post something about my anxiety, it is these sisters and brothers that reach out and read it. That tell me to go ahead and feel them feelings. To own my truth. I am grateful. And now I’m writing.

It changed my life, I tell ya’.

I was accepted into VONA for a second time and am about to embark on a brand new journey there. I feel like a completely different person. I won’t lie and say that I have overcome anxiety. In fact, I had a really bad night the other night. I will say that I will walk into VONA proud of the steps I have taken. Proud that I haven’t let it kill me. Trip me up, maybe. Kill me? Naaaaaah.

I am going to finish that piece and when I am ready, I will share it with the world. I can only ask that if someone reads it, and they don’t have the words, that what they read is: You are not alone.

Time to overcome the crap.

This is Weak Writing: The Burrs in the Process

I think that I am a fraud most of the time. That’s just how it is. I often sit with ideas scribbled in my journal and stare at them. I know it would only take a few hours of research and work to get what I need to write the piece and yet, I often just close the journal and procrastinate with distractions, wine, food, sex, social events. I am completely aware that in terms of my passion, I lack some discipline and it is why I often rely on my writing peeps to hold me accountable. They usually don’t and quite frankly, they don’t have to. Shit, they’re trying to hold themselves accountable for their own work. So, I journal and edit pieces that have been in edit stage for months, I read and re-read work I have written and tell myself , “This is not authentic. It is weak writing. It is shit.”

And then I write some more. Masochist, much?

Why do so many of us artists feel like what we accomplish, even if it’s just a journal entry, is not “real” work?  Despite countless workshops, articles, and books encouraging us to be proud of the small steps, that encourage us to create these small steps in a ritualistic way, we so often tend to focus on just the producing, on submitting, on applying, on creating a brand for ourselves….we so often focus on the big screen of our dreams. This is not to say this is all bad, of course. To want to succeed in your passion is one of the most normal things in the world and to celebrate those successes is just as normal.

What I struggle with though, is the beat downs we administer to ourselves when we are not producing as fast as others, when we are not as productive as others. The self-loathing of not being “there” yet, wherever “there” is for us. We all do it. I have one writer friend who is a beast at producing work, constantly writing at all wee hours of the night, writing and writing and writing. I have another writer friend who is submission crazy…constantly submitting here and there and there and here. Both are amazing and accomplished writers and both have told me in their own ways that they don’t know how the other does it.

And here I am, asking what the hell is holding me back from it all? Welp, I am currently unemployed, looking for work with the shadows of way too many bills looming over me, selling some of my things in order to make too short ends meet, and struggling every day with anxiety attacks that leave me drained and exhausted. I can sit here and say all of that because it is my truth and my reality. I also sit here and beat myself up over all of those things, telling myself that I’m just using my circumstances as an excuse. Didn’t Frida Kahlo paint when she was completely bed-ridden? Didn’t she produce despite the shit going on? What’s holding me back from doing the same?

It’s the burrs.

When I was in high school, I, being the logophile I have always been, was in an AP English class, not that in hindsight, that shit means anything to me. But, back then, it meant everything. I handed in a paper on something, I forget on what, probably some Greek epic or some bullshit that I could care less for. But I was proud of it. So proud that when the teacher pulled me aside after class, I was sure he was going to applaud my work and tell me how good it was.  Boy, was I wrong.

“This is weak writing, Ms. Rodriguez. I don’t know what you think you are capable of, but with this writing it must not be much.”

The words are often what I repeat to myself when I read my work: This is weak writing. This is weak writing.

There is always a moment in our lives, a word, a phrase, a glance that we take so personally, that we hold onto it and sabotage our lives with it. A moment that sticks to us like burrs and though we continue forward, this annoying little thing clings to us as we go, a reminder to never think too loftily of ourselves. Sometimes, we have no idea we’re carrying them.

It’s funny. I found this specific teacher on Facebook and actually praised him. Told him it is because of that day that I work so hard to become a “strong writer.” Now why would I go and do something like that? Because I do strive for that. I do want to be a strong writer. I can acknowledge that ugly moment as the moment I realized I was going to prove him wrong. He was thanked for giving me that. Nothing more.

I wonder if he realized that when he said that to me that he could have crushed my dreams and stunted my passion? I tell myself that when I have published my first book, he will cringe and feel remorseful. Remember those words he said to me and reflect on how wrong he was.

The reality is he won’t.

That’s the funny things about the burrs. We’re the only ones carrying them.

I have accomplished some things as a writer. Attended the Voices of Our Nations Arts workshops in June 2014, an essay I wrote was published in So To Speak Online Feminist Journal, I completed a nine-month writing workshop that left me with a decent chunk of a manuscript, and I am now reapplying for the VONA workshops in June 2015. I’ve done some work that I am extremely and utterly proud of, but yet, I still feel as if I haven’t done enough.

Reapplying to VONA is bringing those burrs all to light. I have changed and re-organized my work a million times. I have cried to my boyfriend and my friends about how horrible it is, how much I hate it, how lost I feel. I have shut down and avoided, I have called myself a hack and have decided to forego the application and then change my mind. Thankfully, I have until March to stop being such a pendeja about it.

The fear of rejection is definitely part of it. Now, if I don’t get into VONA, I won’t be too mad. Someone else who can benefit from the workshops, who has never experienced VONA for themselves, will get that chance in my absence if I am not accepted. But it’s not the rejection from the program that truly unsettles me. What bothers me, is that through that rejection, the rejection of my work that will drive a stake through my heart.

This is weak writing. This is weak writing.

I’ve told my boyfriend this. I have told my writing peeps this. They all give me the same look. It’s one that starts as a smirk because they just can’t believe that I, so confident and open for so many other things, could possibly think I am a no-good fraud of a writer. Then their eyes soften, they smile warmly, they offer encouragement, they offer love. Trust me, it’s like a snort of coke. It helps me escape momentarily, but that blinking cursor is that burr digging in my shoe. It’s still there.

This is weak writing. This is weak writing.

But, perhaps this part is the work, too.

This part. The shedding of the burrs. Perhaps, as Dr. Clarisa Pinkola Estes says, we need to realize that continuing the work, IS the work, no matter the process, no matter the production, no matter the length of time to get to our “theres.”

I’m going to stick with that. I should. I should stick with that.