Memory, healing and transmutation
The work on the self continues
I remember longing for an apartment overlooking the forest of Inwood Hill Park in upper Manhattan, where I lived for many years. I imagined growing herbs on the window sills, hanging plants everywhere. I pictured myself sipping wine as I watched the sun set over the canopy. My desk would face an enormous window, and there I would write my stories, with the comfort of the only natural forest on Manhattan island as my backdrop. I never got that apartment, and that made me sad for a long time. I never thought I could have more. I didn’t know I was manifesting this house in the countryside where my current concern is the raccoons and the havoc they’ve wreaked on my deck. Pots overturned. Soil dug out from planters. They’re cute but those little shits sure are destructive.
As a kid, I remember watching my mother in her garden from my perch in the plum tree. She’d raise her face to the sun and inhale deeply. The edges of her lips curled and then she’d sigh the most tremendous sigh. It was the happiest I ever saw her.
I thought I understood why she created that garden oasis in the war zone that was Bushwick, Brooklyn in the 80s, but I came to a completely different level of understanding this week as I cleaned out a 25 x 30 foot enclosed space that was once a garden built and maintained by a long ago owner. It was piled high with branches, weeds & vines with sharp thorns that scratched me up & made me shriek in pain several dozen times. In a corner stood a 4.5 foot pile of ashes from the wood burning stove. It took two days and I had some help, but it’s finally done and ready for me to plant my first garden…when the weather decides to cooperate!
I’ve been struggling. Over the past few weeks I’ve had days where I feel like the grief is suffocating me. I’ve heard that putting your hands in soil helps to quell whatever’s aching you. I’ve done this to some degree with potted plants and deck gardens, but this feels different. There’s an old, sacred energy about this place. I can feel the care that was put into the space in the details, like the stones that line the perimeter to keep out burrowing animals like rabbits.
I keep going back to the image of mom cleaning out the yard when we moved into that first floor apartment on Palmetto Street in the spring of 1980. Here I am, all these years later, 65 miles away, doing the same on my land. Mom wasn’t just planting vegetables & herbs, she was saving her own life the best she knew how…much like I’m now saving mine.
This week I facilitated the last class of The Begin Again Series, which made me revisit why I created the series in the first place.
I was off social media for three months. I didn’t teach. In fact, I didn’t talk to many people at all. I needed the quiet to take care of my heart, watch the birds on the feeder, the deer in the forest. I needed to cry & cry & cry.
The silence was good for me for a while. Then it wasn’t. I knew I needed to switch things up. I missed community. People. Writers.
One day, I smelled spring, my favorite season. The scent is green and wet and earthy. My mind went back to my first spring on our land last year. My dear friend Karen was visiting, and we were on the deck when we noticed a new sound emanating from the forest behind the house. We came up with all sorts of theories about what the sound was—a murder of crows feasting beyond our sight, the trill of some strange birds somewhere in the canopy. When the sound seemed even louder the next day, we went investigating.
I recorded the moment when we realized the sound was a frog orgy happening in our pond. Sadly, substack doesn’t yet have the embed video functionality, but you can watch the moment (and giggle with me) here. I swear those last few seconds were not staged. That’s what makes the video all the more hilarious.
This is without a doubt one of my favorite experiences in nature. The memory inspired me to create the Writing for the Seasons Series, a themed, generative writing class on the first day of each of the seasons. We started on the spring equinox. It was everything I needed. I felt invigorated. I’d forgotten how much I love this work I do, and apparently needed the reminder.
This led me to create the appropriately named Begin Again Series. I was starting anew, and wanted to commemorate what felt like a big step in my grieving and healing process. The classes and writers helped bring me back to myself.
The grief is still there. Some days it claws, but I feel more equipped to take gentle action to make it ebb. To see it. Acknowledge it. Thank it for its lessons, and keep moving.
The last class was the cross-genre Letter Writing: Epistolary Writing Class, a powerful ending as I’ve been writing letters for most of my life—in boarding school I sent out packets every week, and in college it was my brother in prison who got them; I’d draw on the envelopes with bright colored pens to make him smile.
There’s so much I don’t know and a few things I do. Sorrow has taught me so much…
As Jamila Osman writes: “Grief is a profound teacher, but it is anguish long before it is enlightenment.”
Enlightenment for me is knowing that this anguish can be transmuted into beautiful things, with time, tenderness and effort.
I continue this transmutation practice with a new series, The All in My Feelings Series, which will take place Wednesdays in May. I chose this specific theme because I’ve been a ball of emotion these past few months, and it felt right to take this on, especially since I work so obsessively to bring emotion to the page.
Writers know that emotions like fear and anger are slippery subjects that are difficult to encapsulate in writing. How can we distill or display, accurately, the complexity of something abstract like joy in a single text? How can we write grief in ways that allow readers to feel and experience it with us? That’s what we’ll take on in these classes. I decided to start with grief on May 4th, because this too feels right and I feel ready.
May 4th - Writing Grief
May 11th - Writing Joy
May 18th - Writing Rage
May 25th - Writing Fear
In addition to the transmutation work, I’ve been taking other deliberate steps to be well.
“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so's you're sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you're well.” The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara
This includes weekly appointments with a chiropractor and intuitive healer who focuses on the fascia, a connective tissue, primarily collagen, that forms a matrix throughout the body and helps to support overall structure, to stabilize and to aid in movement. Did you know that the memory of trauma is stored in the fascia? I didn’t.
I’ve shared with folks that I’ve been feeling stuck in my memoir writing. I decided to take direct action around this by signing up for the self-guided class, Stardust & Salt: Daily Creative Practice, with Doctor Alexis Pauline Gumbs. I’ve wanted to work with her for a long time, and the description of the class sang to me.
This 10-day series is designed to support you in creating a daily practice that opens up infinite possibility but that also STICKS in the context of your changing life.
For 10 days you will wake up to Sista Docta Alexis Pauline Gumbs opening up your sky reading you a poem and offering you some nourishing reflections and questions from her unpublished series of "sky study" meditation poems. In the afternoon you will dive deeper with excerpts from her forthcoming Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons for Marine Mammals. Every day is designed to help you practice the practice of PRACTICE. By the end of the course you will have concrete clarities to open up your own sky and dive deep into your creative practice every day.
If you have the time, the inclination, and the money, I strongly (absurdly strongly) recommend this course. I am four days in and cannot overstate what it’s done for me and my spirit. And it’s got me writing and confronting myself in gentle & interesting ways.
It was after today’s session that I wrote this poem for my daughter, as I was thinking about how she’s going to college in the fall (on a full merit scholarship), and is already pulling away and exerting her independence in ways that make me both proud and terrified. I do not claim myself a poet, but us CNF writers dabble in poetry too.
A poem for my daughter by Vanessa Mártir
When you were six, you watched as the kids in the playground flung themselves across the monkey bars, giggling the entire way. You tried, but fell reaching for the third rung. When I ran to help you, you pushed my hands away. Said: “No, I can do it by myself.” On our way home, you said: “Imma do it, ma. Watch.” Every day you went to work, hand over hand, your face tight with determination, lips a straight line. When you fell, you got up, wiped your tears, and tried again. By the end of the summer, you had calluses on your hands, and you’d taught yourself how to get across the bars with no one’s help. Not even your mama’s.
Being deliberate about my healing and self-care has shifted me in profound ways I am still finding words for. I want to remind you: You too are worthy of this level of care. Please find what makes you feel most alive and at peace, and try to do that as often as possible. Start today. And please do tell me how it goes.
Big love to you on your journey,
I absolutely love reading your essays. Thank you for always being so candid. It pushes me to continue being as transparent as possible when I write.