Change, middle age & discovery
I got my first cortisone shot this week. Does that mean I'm old?
For a long time, I thought I’d live the rest of my days in NYC. When I left at 13 to attend boarding school in the suburbs outside of Boston, I had to play the radio on low volume to drown out the sounds of the crickets at night. The suburban life wasn’t for me at that age. I was used to the city that never sleeps, access to transportation 24/7 (the subways & most buses run around the clock). I hated that the few stores in town shuttered at 6. I hated that you needed a car to get everywhere. I hated the darkness, the quiet, the way the hill we lived on iced up so bad in the winter, I more than once slid downhill on my ass to get to wherever I needed to go. I hated that we lived just under 2 miles from the school so we didn’t get a bus, and most days there was no one to take us so we had to walk, even when it was freezing cold and windy, rainy, so hot, by the time I got to the campus, my thighs were chaffed.
I remember that first time I walked to the campus. I hadn’t been taught the shorter route so I had to take the picturesque, much longer way via the Brook Path, a woodsy walkway that winded between houses along a brook. It was scenic, beautiful, but it was long.
Weeks before I’d decided what I was going to wear that first day when I saw the outfit hanging from a kiosk at the flea market in the Aqueduct Racetrack that mom took me to to get all my essentials—an iron, sheets, pillows, an alarm clock radio that I had for the four years of high school and messed up when I left it on the ledge of my open dorm window during a rainstorm my first year at Columbia. I saw it from far away: the pleated schoolgirl skirt, with green and purple box design, a matching green button down with the green & purple design on the trim of the collar. I tried it on in a makeshift changing room, the walls made of sheets precariously pinned together with clothesline pins. The skirt fell to right above my knee and the shirt fit perfect, though by the following spring my breasts strained against the buttons. My sister gifted me her square toe Mary Janes to complete the outfit. It was the perfect first day outfit. I’d look studious but stylish. My hair half up, half down, simple small hoop earrings, and a smile.
But that walk along the Brook Path was so long. And those shoes were not made for walking long distances. Why did I decide to wear no socks? My feet were badly blistered when I finally arrived. I had rings of sweat under my arm pits and a huge circle of sweat on my back beneath my backpack which I’d insisted on bringing because I just knew I’d need it. (I didn’t.) There were dots of sweat along my chest and the collar was soaked, my hair was frizzy, and I was late. The journey proved longer than I’d calculated. When I pushed the door to enter the auditorium where the entire freshman class of 120 was seated, it made a loud clang. All eyes turned to look at me. Then the whispers started. Who’s that? Where’d she come from? I was the only girl in the scholarship program that year.
I sat in the back, two rows behind everyone. I’ve often felt like I’m still sitting in that hard, terribly uncomfortable wooden seat. By myself.
I spent four years in that town, in that school. I tried to fit in at first. Then I stopped trying. I spent most weekends in the dorm, reading or watching TV. There are so many reasons why. None of them I care to examine here. What I know is that four years later, I went running back to NYC. I applied to schools outside of the city (Connecticut College, UPenn, Wesleyan), but I knew if I got into one of the schools that I’d applied to in NYC (Columbia, Barnard, NYU), I’d be going back to my hometown.
I stayed for the next 28 years. Yes, I traveled some. Not as much as I wanted because of poverty and mismanagement of money. And, if I’m honest, sometimes, most times, the only place I felt safe in the world was my home city, which is ironic because of the reputation the city has for crime and violence. (I can’t count the times I was asked in boarding school if I’d ever been in a shoot out.) But when you’re from here, you carry the grit of the city beneath your fingernails, in the hardness of your jaw. Or at least I did.
I wanted to leave a long time before I did. When I finally visited The Bay for a writing workshop in 2009, I went back every year for many years, in part because the workshop was home for so long, but also because I loved San Francisco. When I went to the East Bay, I was hooked. The red wood forests, the small city feel, the art, the culture, the ambiance, the everything. I schemed on finding ways to move. I talked to my mentors, to fellow writers and workshop participants. I was gonna do it, I said. Then I got back to the city and reality set in: How was I going to do that when I was a single mom barely making ends meet? Would my daughter’s father give me trouble? Did I want to take her away from him? He wasn’t (still isn’t) great but at least he was somewhat present. What about my family? Could I leave them? Who would help me care for my daughter the way my titi and cousins did?
What saved my life all those years of longing was Inwood Hill Park. I started hiking the park in my 20s but it was after I returned to the neighborhood when I was 34 that I really got to know the forest, it’s paved and unpaved trails, what was left of the mansions that once stood there, the pieces the Lenape left behind including a healing circle that was hundreds, maybe thousands, of years old, and is now being cared for by Taínos. In that forest I could forget I was in the city. I could imagine a life in the woods.
I started seeking out forest and green spaces wherever I traveled—the Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, Washington Park in Portland, the Gifford Arboretum on the University of Miami Coral Gables campus.
When I moved to Riverdale, I’d cross the Henry Hudson Bridge to get to the forest of Inwood Hill Park, and found so many green spaces in my walking ventures, including Riverdale Park which runs along the Hudson River and Indian Pond that sits nestled between million dollar houses.
When we moved to the country last year, it was an easy transition. I loved the silence. The different sounds the wind made depending on where it came from —the way it whistled when it came off the field next to the house and roared like a train when it came off the mountain. I adjusted seamlessly because I’ve wanted a slower life for a while now.
When I first embraced myself as writer and starting attending workshops and classes, I used to be everywhere—estaba hasta en la sopa, as Latinos say. Readings at the Nuyorican, the Bowery, Capicu in Brooklyn. Book events at La Casa Azul, The Strand, McNally Jackson, Greenlight. Outdoor poetry events in Lincoln Center, Fort Greene Park, and various urban gardens around the city in El Barrio, the South Bronx, Alphabet City. Acentos Poetry Workshop at Hostos was church on Sundays. Then there were the cultural events at Camaradas, the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Schomburg. I took classes at Cave Canem and traveled for days long workshops (VONA, Tin House).
By the time I met my wife, I’d started scaling back on the events. My pata caliente (as my mom called it) was now lukewarm. I don’t know if it was age, disillusionment with the artist community (that’s an entirely different conversation), my own weariness, but I grew tired of feeling the need to be everywhere. I’d soaked up enough. I needed/wanted to be with myself, with the earth, the birds, my thoughts. I wanted to write my stories in silence. I wanted to brood and write. Teach here and there, creating classes that mattered to me, that I saw as important and necessary, that I was passionate about—like Nature Writing, Writing the Self as a Character, Family Trouble: Writing about Family, my trademark Writing the Mother Wound. Mostly I wanted to write and be around writers in quiet, contemplative spaces.
The other day, when I was in the city, I felt myself getting overstimulated. All the noise, so many people, cars, the traffic. Is this what middle age looks like on me?
I start my days slowly. I say good morning to my plant babies. Go out to water my garden and the plants on my deck.
Yesterday I went to the orthopedist to check my aching arm. Turns out I have tennis elbow (aka tendinitis) and a lot of inflammation. I got my first cortisone shot. I thought that was just for old people? Am I old?
The kicker is that I didn’t hurt myself doing real shit like boxing or lifting weights. I hurt my arm while I was gardening. Whoever tells you gardening isn’t backbreaking work, ain’t doing it right.
As slow as I move, the doc told me I need to move slower, if only for the next few weeks until my arm heals. My wife says it’s because I’m a “raaaawr type of gal.” My daughter says I need to stop acting like I’m 21.
I’ve always done things for myself. I lived alone for years before I met my daughter’s father and when I left him, I was single (sans situationships) for ten years.
One day, when I was a newly single mom, I was frustrated because I couldn’t hang my curtains. I had to prove to myself that I could be alone again. That I could do it by myself. I dressed my daughter (who was then an infant), took the bus, walked a half a mile to Home Depot, then did that in reverse, a drill in tow. I put my curtains up that night.
I met a former lover when I hoisted a 50 LB bag of laundry onto my shoulder and climbed the stairs to find him holding the door for me. He asked if I needed help. I didn’t…
My wife still has to remind me periodically: you can do it alone, but you don’t have to. We’ve been together almost seven years.
It’s only in the last few years that I’ve come to see that telling myself (and the world) “I got this, I don’t need nobody” was a trauma response. It was a way to protect myself, or so I thought. I’ve said that if there was an emotionally unavailable person within 50 miles of me, I was going to find them and make them love me. Of course that never worked. I was just as emotionally unavailable. It just looked different on me.
I’m dedicating this week’s newsletter to my beloved nephew Justin Andrew Moncada, who was murdered six months ago today. He was my brother’s only child, and he and I had a special relationship. I’m missing him hard today.
The last time I saw him in August, he told me he wanted to write a book and asked me to help him. Of course I said yes. I never got to do that…but I can honor him and my brother by continuing to do this work. One of the last things my brother told me before he died (it’ll be nine years on the 24th) was: You have to go write our stories, sis.
I am doing that. And I’m also helping other people write their stories.
On June 21st, I’m honoring the Summer Solstice with the summer edition of the Writing for the Seasons Class. The class is online and the theme is FREEDOM. Suggested donation is $30 but you can give more or less.
More upcoming, one day classes include:
Family Trouble: Writing about Family on June 29th
Writing the Self as a Character on July 13th
In the coming days, I’m also announcing two fall, multi-week classes:
Introduction to Writing Your Life, 3 week class starts September 5th
Advanced Personal Essay: A revision & submission class, 4 week class starts October 3rd
Send questions and inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please be good to yourselves. Love the people who love you. Tell them you love them. Show them. And also, don't forget to tell and show yourself. Peace.