Where is home? Who is home? How do they make you feel?
Until last week, it had been months since I’d been to my home town. I left for boarding school at 13 & came running back to NYC for college. I stayed for the next 28 years. When I finally left early last year, it’s because I wanted a slower life. A life closer to the trees, the forest, the soil.
Over the last week, I’ve taken the 70 minute bus ride into the city twice. I wondered how I’d feel being back in the city. I’ve acclimated to country living, and most days don’t miss city living, though I do miss my sister friends fiercely, and sometimes hearing about literary events happening in the city makes me ache. I miss the museums and art on the walls; the murals that dot the city don’t exist in these woods but, if I look around, especially at my garden, I could argue that I live closer to art than ever.
Unsurprisingly, once I got off on 42nd, I found my NYC-bred legs quickly, weaving through the midtown crowds with ease. My body remembered. I went straight from Port Authority to the pizza shop on 42nd & 5th & ordered the same fresh mozzarella Sicilian slice I’ve been getting since I worked nearby when I was 23. I smiled at the guy with a raincoat made out of a black garbage bag, at the queer teenage couple kissing under an umbrella in Bryant Park, grumbled at the suits, & cringed at the idea of living that cubicle life. I worked in so many of those office buildings over the years, on the east side, west side, midtown, down in chelsea, further down in the village, Wall Street, Alphabet City. I know those streets. I have walked, biked, rollerbladed them, driven down the avenues as both driver & passenger in so many cars. In fact, the first time I drove was on 7th Avenue by Christopher Street. When my friend Roz (miss you!) let me drive his Mercedes Benz, he said, “If you can drive in the city, you can drive anywhere.” (Roz is also why I had a hot foot for so long.)
I went into the city to see my daughter Vasialys perform in a play she co-wrote called “love letter to the black and brown girls who don’t get loved the way they should.” She had a cast of seven senior girls. The performance included monologues, spoken word soliloquies, dance. There were tears and laughter. I sat in the corner of the front row fighting the urge to sob. (I promised her I wouldn’t embarrass her.) At the end, they got a much deserved standing ovation.
My daughter and her classmates reminded me of why I’m obsessed with voice. The words, whether uttered by herself or someone on her cast, sounded so like my Vasia.
The weekend that followed was both beautiful and messy. I’ve been thinking a lot about my memoir, working on it & wondering why it’s taken me so long, why the story of my relationship with my mother is still so charged and difficult to write. If I’m honest, I’ve been beating myself up about it. I’m a master at self-flagellation (cue scene of the albino monk Silas flailing himself with a hooked whip in The Da Vinci Code). This weekend I was reminded: I am very much still living in that dysfunction, so of course chronicling it, dissecting it so I can examine it, proves difficult. I am still in it.
I created a beautiful garden and was so excited to show it to my mother, after all, I get my love for nature from her. Later when I told my wife how unimpressed my mother appeared, she asked me what I was looking for: “Approval?” It was then that I realized what I’d been hoping for was connection, something she couldn’t, wouldn’t give me or herself. I confess, it broke my heart a bit.
Later, when I returned home, I went into my garden to let it hold me. I stared around at the beauty I created, the vegetables sprouting, the green emerging in the flower bed, how artistically I’ve arranged everything, things I’ve been adding to it every day: a flower pot here, a trinket there. I wept as the emotions consumed me, grateful for the vision I had that my wife helped me make a reality.
Of course so much has changed since I started writing about my mother wound. I know now that my mother’s behavior has nothing to do with me. I don’t deserve to be dismissed or treated unkindly as she did more than once over those few days. I am no longer the little girl who collapsed under her hateful glare.
Have you ever had your mother look at you like she hates you? Like she is disgusted by you? Showing you that this person who carried you in her womb abhors your very existence…lip curled, eyes pinched, nostrils flared.
Sometimes I hate that I’m still so affected by her. My wife reminded me: “Of course you are, she’s your mother.” It’s wild the ways I still punish myself for my trauma. I come back to voice because I found my voice again this weekend, said no, this is not okay, this is unacceptable, you cannot treat me with such cruelty, I will not accept it.
This weekend showed me that this book I’m working on is very much a living, breathing thing. This new understanding is making me ask important questions of the work and my place in it. Writing a memoir is such a wild ride.
I am finding so many ways to advocate for myself. This week I also had to send someone a super awkward message. I had to set a hard boundary. After a lifetime of people pleasing, it took me days to muster the courage & days to come up with the right language.
I have sacrificed my own peace of mind, and physical and emotional comfort for people who did not give a shit about me, and/or didn’t think twice about my needs and emotions. I can’t, won’t be that person anymore. This is Vanessa practicing how to advocate for herself. I’m proud of her, if still a little uncomfortable. I can live with the discomfort. I can’t live with selling myself short.
I’m not ready to write publicly about most of the self-advocating I’ve been doing, but I will say this: writing my stories is making me increasingly more unfuckwithable, and I am here for it.
This past Friday, I went into the city because it was my favorite girl’s prom. My daughter graduates in two weeks. It’s so true what they say: the days are long, the years are short. I still remember when I found out I was going to be a mom, that high risk pregnancy, the two months on bed rest, what it felt like when I heard her cry for the first time—she was still halfway in my body. I read to her in my belly every day, and for years after.
Being her mom has been such an adventure, so healing and challenging. I didn’t always get it right, but I can say today with confidence that I did most of it well. Her thriving and shining so bright is all the evidence I need. She’s fiercely independent, smart, curious and socially conscious. More importantly, she’s kind and considerate, she cares and also isn’t one to be fucked with—she will let you know about yourself if you cross the line, much like her mama.
She knows and values here voice. She is firm in who she is.
There it is again: VOICE. I’ve written a lot about voice in this newsletter. It was a journey to find mine.
Scene: June 2012, Berkeley, California. Last day of a writing residency with Mat Johnson, author of Pym, Incognegro, Loving Day & so many more.
Mat: “Okay, so you have your stories. You have everything you need to finish this book. Let’s talk about your voice.”
Me: “Whatchu mean my voice?” I said with every ounce of Brooklyn sass and what-the-fuck I have in me.
Mat: “I want to see the Vanessa I see in front of me on that page.” He told me he’d heard about me before he worked with me. “Everybody notices you when you enter a room, Vanessa. I wanna see that on the page.” He grabbed my laptop and said, “Talk to me about Millie.” He was referring to my second mom Millie who I write so much about because of what she taught me about love and the world.
Me: (laughs) “Millie was a butch. She always wore a black Kangol. She’d grab the brim of her hat and say, ‘Yo soy butch’ but the way she said it, it was like she was dancing salsa but just with her shoulders.”
Mat passed me my computer. “You wrote that,” he said. “I just typed it.”
I’ve never been the same.
I worked obsessively on my voice for months. Doing that work changed my writing and changed me. I’m now authentically me on the page. I’m not trying to be anyone else. I no longer write the way I was told I should write. When you read my work, you know it’s me without having to look at the byline.
This experience led me to create the Reclaiming Your Voice on the Page class, because if you’re like me, you too have been taught that you have to write a certain way that negates your cultural influences and verbal tics and everything that makes you you.
I get it. It was done to me too and I’ve written about it. It has become one of my missions as a writer and educator to help writers learn to write in their own distinctive voices, because that’s where your power is.
You don’t have to write like Hemingway or Poe. You can and should write like yourself. But what does that even mean? Come find out on Wednesday, June 15th, 7-9pm EST. Price of class is $30.
This coming weekend, on June 18th, I’m back in the city, but this time it’s for you, the writers!
I miss teaching in person.
I miss seeing your faces, laughing with you, learning from you.
I miss watching writers hunched over their journals, faces tight with concentration.
I used to facilitate these Writing Our Lives in the Park sessions annually, but Covid put a stop to that. This weekend, we’re taking it back to the woods.
When? June 18th, 2022, 11:30am-5pm (rain date: June 19th)
Where? Inwood Hill Park, 207th Street and Seaman Avenue (on Manhattan Island)
Price? Sliding scale $30-50
Vanessa and Writing Our Lives are busy in the coming days! On June 21st, Writing for the Seasons is back for the Summer Solstice. (These two hour online writing sessions are scheduled for the first day of each season: Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter.)
The theme of this class is FREEDOM, since the summer means the kids are out of school, summer Fridays (if you’re lucky) are in full effect, we can liberate ourselves of all those layers of clothes, and we are free to venture out into the warm world, the beaches, parks, lakes, festivals, etc. (in a COVID safe way, please).
A few days before the class, I will send participants a list of readings, inspired by summer and the theme of FREEDOM. These readings will serve to inspire and lead us into writing prompts I will provide on June 21st, 7-9pm EST.
I’ll be announcing more classes in the next newsletter including a new one day Writing the Mother Wound Intensive on July 30th. More info on that here.
I hope to see you in an upcoming class. Let’s write together!