Week 22: #52Essays2017 Day Three -VONA

Morning of Day Three:

I woke up feeling really positive. Exhausted and in dire need of coffee, but positive. Day Three was the day I would be getting workshopped by my group. I was nervous because my essays are personal and hit all the bruised tender spots in my heart.

But, knowing the cerebral and delicious conversations my workshop had been having, I knew that seeing my work through their eyes would be an interesting ride.

Day Three:

I sat in the workshop with every intention of not getting emotional. This work on my identity, on dismantling my shame and my trauma is extremely difficult for me. I sometimes forget that posting my essays on my blog means that people can actually see and read what I have written. Isn’t that silly?

Knowing this, I asked myself what I have been trying to tackle. Am I trying to just tell people what I have gone through? Am I trying to unload on the world so I don’t have to carry the weight of it? I sat there and told myself, “I have no reason to refer to my life as traumatic. My life has never been as bad as others have had it. How dare I?” I beat myself up for downplaying the reality of my existence.

I simmered in self-doubt again. I boiled there.

And doubt is dangerous. Doubt makes me think I have nothing to be healed from. Doubt makes me think that I should be ashamed of telling the world these things. Doubt makes me think of my family, makes me think they’d be angry or upset at me telling everyone my business, our business, their business. Doubt makes me think that they’d never understand. Doubt encourages the fear because the fear tells me that I have a lot to lose by writing these essays.

Doubt tells me that writing is not just a solitary act but can be an isolating one as well.

I sat there in that workshop before my pieces were discussed and felt sweat dampen my spine, felt blood rush to my head. I was nervous. I was scared of being judged. I was scared of being told that it wasn’t enough.

And instead, I was told my writing was animated, had movement, was effective. I was told that my language had sensuality, that the sense of the body and the awareness of body was a thematic thruline that added to the writing. I was told that I capture the reader with my writing.

So far, so good, I thought to myself.

Workshopping at VONA forces you to relinquish your ego,  forces you to really look at the work you’ve created. It asks you craft questions about spacing and theme and if structure and language are effective, which are all necessary in the revision process.

But more importantly, it helps you to see the areas which you are avoiding or running from. It helps you to see the patchy areas where you could’ve dug a bit more, pulled that band-aid off a little further.

And my fellow workshoppers did just that: They urged me to sit in my vulnerability more, asked me to take a look at the hard shit I was writing about and stay there until it was all out on the page, until I had squeezed out all of the infection. They asked me if the moments of self-deprecation was my voice.

And they asked me the questions that are starting to shape the very intention and direction of my writing:

What makes you so terrible and why do you write that? 

What does your empowerment look like?

I lost direction for so long with my writing. I was so unclear what it was that I have been trying to say and to a certain degree, I still am. But writing essay has really helped me put some discipline in my writing. Writing essay has been productive, not just for my writing practice, but for my spirit.

The first question is a different way of asking what I have been asking myself since I began the essay challenge:  How do I cater to shame in my writing? How has shame shaped how I define myself? Why and how has shame become a part of my existence and why do I need to write it?

But it’s that second question, scribbled in blue ink in my journal that hit me like a ton of bricks:

What does your empowerment look like? 

I don’t really know how my empowerment looks. I am not healed. Shit, I am still looking at what I need to be healed from.

And again, I don’t think healing is a finite thing. I think facing traumas or pain in one’s life creates an unearthing of emotions that one may have no idea they have been avoiding.

I think healing is a constantly evolving thing. It is a recognition and acknowledgment just as much as it is an unlearning. It is often a revisit. It is often triggering.

But it is necessary.

I suppose then, the answer to that question is:

I’m working on it.

 

 

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Week 21: #52Essays2017 Day Two-VONA

At the end of Day One, I sat with friends at CopaBanana, a local eatery right off of the campus. We munched on salty french fries and sipped on whiskey and ginger ale. The conversation turned to submitting work. I asked myself then if that would be my intention for the next year, to submit more work. I promised myself that I would make that decision once I was workshopped on Day Three.

I knew that getting my piece workshopped could do one of two things: light a fire under my ass or make me run under a rock to hide.

As we walked back to campus, I asked myself if I was ready for submitting work. I asked myself if my work was ready. I asked myself if it was good enough. I told myself I was just playing myself, that my work was mediocre at best, that I had to try harder, be better, do more before I could submit anything.

I felt the self-doubt hanging itself like a weight from my ankles as I walked, dragging me back to earth from the high of the earlier part of the day.

I went to bed thinking I had no idea why I was even there.

*

Day Two: 

I woke up and dressed carefully, putting on a flowy dress to combat the heat, piling my hair at the top of my crown with pins. I tried not to think of the beat-down session I gave myself the night before. I ate breakfast, kept a smile on my face, and then started the trek across campus to workshop. I noticed three white males walking extremely close behind me as I walked. It made me uncomfortable, not just because of their whiteness (though that played a part), but because of their maleness. I don’t like men walking extremely close behind me. It makes me feel unsafe. It makes me feel watched. It makes me feel vulnerable.

I stopped short and the person directly behind me bumped into me, of course. They sucked their teeth as they walked around me. I stared at them with icicles in my eyelashes as they did. It was too early and I hadn’t had much coffee.

The incident made me appreciate New Yorkers, who just like me, like their personal space. Walking on someone’s heels is just not a New York thing, despite how crowded and cramped it may be. The only place motherfuckers will forgive that shit is in a crowded train and barely then. On the street though? Unacceptable.

Finally in workshop, we dove right into workshopping people’s pieces. The conversation circled around the disruption of idols and what that meant for us. We talked about one of the pieces assigned to us to read, an interview in a 1984 issue of Essence magazine between Audre Lorde and James Baldwin. In it, Baldwin’s male blindspot is garish, put into light.

How do we accept that the man revered for his writings during the Civil Rights movement had a HUGE male blindspot? Does that take from his work? Does that makes us see him differently? How do we reconcile our respect for our icons of Black and Brown movements with their flaws, with their humanity?

Zhayra, a fellow workshopper, raised a powerful point to us by referencing what she said she believed was an ancient Greek saying: “The greatest disappointment and liberation is knowing that your gods have feet of clay.”

I thought about that quote for most of the remainder of the day, journaling about it while wrapped in blankets in the dorm room later that night, fighting sleep to get the words down.

The conversation reminded me of a scene in a memoir written by the granddaughter of Lolita Lebron, in which she talks about the funeral held for her mother. The government allows Lolita to attend her daughter’s funeral and the funeral overflows with people who hold Lolita as an icon for Puerto Rican Nationalism. The little girl at her mother’s funeral wonders why so many people are just there for her grandmother and not to mourn her mother. She watches as her grandmother waves to the masses, hugs people, talks to them about Puerto Rican nationalism. She watches her grandmother and strips her of the idolatry everyone else gave to her. At that moment, Lolita is not a Puerto Rican nationalist icon. In that moment, she is just a flawed woman.

In the quote Zhayra brought up, it says it is not just a disappointment to see your gods’ flaws, but a liberation. A liberation! The idea that who we respect and revere can also be flawed, reminds us of their humanity. They are no longer icons, they are people with shit…just like us. They are human and humans are flawed, fucked up, messy. Perfection after all is an illusion. Imperfection is the reality.

In our disappointment in our fallen icons is the recognition of their humanity. And in recognizing that they are human and flawed like we are, it gives us the freedom to accept our own flaws, our own imperfections as facets of who we are. It helps us to be more gentle with ourselves. Even our inspirations have rot.

I didn’t beat myself up when I put my journal down that night. I didn’t sleep with doubt that night. I dreamt of goddesses with feet made out of red clay washing their feet in a river. I bathed in the river, leaving watery streaks of red on my skin.

I woke up the next morning no longer questioning why I was there. I knew why I was there. To become a better writer.

And the only way for me to do that, was to continue working on being a better person than I used to be.

 

 

 

Week 20: #52Essays2017 Day One – VONA 2017

Night of My Arrival

I forgot a pen. How can someone attending a writing workshop forget a pen? The irony of it all.

This is my third VONA and I am excited to be here for one reason. I missed this energy. I remember, for my first VONA in 2014, arriving in Berkeley, California and looking so pale and anxious, my sister friend begged me to put on lipstick. I was anxious. I was also completely hungover from my 30th birthday celebrations, but that is an entirely separate essay.

I suppose I was more prepared for this VONA. I was anxious all week, felt the anxiety settle into my stomach, gurgle there. I was nauseous for most of Saturday before I got here. I was dizzy and jittery. When I hugged a sister-friend, who, also attending, offered to drive me to Philly, she remarked that I was shaking. I didn’t even realize that my entire body was buzzing until she said that.

I ask myself what VONA brings to my life and all I can say is energy and ink. The VONA experience is one that is about mastering balance. You must balance the work, the ink, the language, the craft with the emotional, social, and spiritual current running through the entire set of people in VONA. I want to make the best of this experience and I don’t want to squander the it. I am a sponge and VONA and all of its wonderful spills and overflow of energy, is the life-giving water. I want to grow this year as a writer. I want to laser-focus on what I am working on.

*

Day One of Workshops

I hadn’t really slept well the night before, but I was up and at ’em at 5:45am to make sure I was showered and dressed for the scheduled sound circle with Gina Breedlove. I went down to the dining hall with my dormmates for the week. Sat down to scrambled eggs, two sausage links and two pancakes, a take out cup of coffee and I was out. I had never done a sound circle before and didn’t know what to expect but I was open to the emotion and the experience.

The room smelled like sage and roses when I walked in. The scent of sweetness and herbs is calming for me, reminds me of botanicas and altars.  Gina, an elegant woman shrouded in spirit addressed us all with the salve of her voice. She wore a floor length, long sleeve dress with greens and blues twisted throughout, shoulders framed with lilies of the valley, a tattoo of a butterfly on her neck. She has the kind of voice that soothes, that eases. Her movements were smart, intentional. Her gesticulations and breath were calculated, measured. Every thing she did was with an intention. Her voice was the sage in the room. I would like her to narrate my life.

The sound circle was meant for us to move energy through our bodies with sound, with the sound of our voices. Each sound was meant for a specific chakra, each Sanskrit word seemed to vibrate against us as we chanted them. The energy was lifted in the room. I felt it. I suppose I was vibrating hard because a number of people said they could feel strong waves of my energy. Sarah even came and placed a hand on my back and checked in with me, told me she could feel my energy from across the room. I thought to myself that this energy I am exuding is all because of VONA. I am allowing myself to be open to waves of energy that in any other way, I am guarded and wary of. New York City can do that to someone, force them to create walls around their spirit.

I felt the places where energy is blocked. I know it is blocked. No, not blocked. Locked. I know I have the key. I am working on loosening those joints so I can be fully open in my spirit. Solar Plexus chakra, the place that holds grief, the stomach, flipped and flipped when we chanted for it. I cried when I felt the chant reverberate there. I know the grief and trauma I feel is pushing against my solar plexus, my stomach, my bowels, my “gut.” I feel it there. I am swallowing to keep it all down. I have to allow myself to process and release. It’s all so complicated when you are unsure of how much you are holding there. Gina Breedlove referred to this release of energy and grief as having a “productive cough.” That resonated with me.

I know I am an energy carrier. I hold weight in this room, in this world. During the sound circle, we were asked what one of our favorite sounds are and my response was the sound of summer, cicadas in the trees, the buzz much like the hum of those chant words. I realized that my spirit is as wide as the ocean, as powerful as the ocean, and as vulnerable as the ocean. I must protect myself always. Ocean and roses.

*

After this opening of spirit, we went straight to our workshops. Our facilitator, Kiese Laymon, is the kind of spirit that reminds me of this beautiful Philly summer weather we are having. Warmth and light and cool, cool, cool breeze. He is a tentative and real soul. Someone that doesn’t parade as a facilitator but more like a prodding stick: Let’s think this, let’s ask questions, let’s make this messier. His brain and his language and writing are brilliance. His heart though. I know that is where he is the shiniest.

The conversations were just stunning. The sound circle work really opened us up and thought and heart poured out of us. I am choosing not to talk fully about what was discussed out of respect to some of the personal things the other writers spoke about, but I will highlight what crossed my mind throughout our workshop discussions.

I wrote in my journal, “When I forget things, I get scared about losing my mind.” I think about Titi Li. I think about Tita. I think and worry about my aunts, uncle, my mother. The loss of lucidity is my worst fear. I want to die with clear eyes and no cobwebs in my brain. I suppose I am pressed to publish and write these things because I am scared that if I don’t, I will forget it all. I will lose it in the mist of dementia one day.

And I want to die with clear eyes.

I thought about being 7 years old and telling all of my secrets to Velvetina, my velveteen rabbit doll. I told her all of my secrets and shared all of my child hopes with her. I whispered so much to my doll, that the seam in her pink satin lined ears had begin to tear. Pages and ink and words became the tear in that ear. I write for that ripped satin ear.

I described writing as being about fucking with your wounds constantly. Healing is not finite. One day you’re ripping off your bandages, exposing them to light and air. Other days, you pick at the scab, the stitches, the scar. The next day you coddle and recharge, you’re gentle, you try to heal yourself. There is no end point to this kind of work really. There is a constant rekindling, , a constant new lens on your wounds, your trauma, your pain. This kind of thinking made me think of Alex La Salle, advising me that too often people use the word “revolution,” when we should be saying “evolution.”

When we workshopped the first person’s piece, I think what came across is the line between technique and emotion, text and intention.The need to make sure that you are present when you write, that you put yourself in the story, and not just in a way that you are just a mere moving part. Place yourself in the story because you are a functioning and emotional part of the story.

We discussed the need to be compassionate with ourselves. Most importantly, we discussed the need to give ourselves permission to do this work, to trust ourselves with the art.

*

And that was just day ONE.

 

 

 

 

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.