A letter to my teenaged daughter…

Dear Holden,

Mami, abuela to you, raised Tia Joann and I, as if we were headed to war, not life. Potential danger in every bend and enemies all around. Life not a journey, but an obstacle to survive. And for decades I lived thinking life to be one great burden to bare. Crushed by the weight. I sought to escape, and hid behind books. Wrapped myself tight in anger, certain if I stomped around like I held grenades in my pocket, the world would fear me, and I’d be left alone. Burnt by flames of my own anger time and time again, I ached to let go of the heat around me. Now, I search to understand and discover meaning. But. In the midst of life, I lose sight and forget, life is more wonder than pain.

*

Wednesday, I entered the apartment, greeted by: Prepárate, wait till you hear about my day. Your hands on your hips, your lips bright from chewing on them, a nervous habit inherited from me. I listened to the “she said I said drama” that had unfolded throughout your day. Angry you stomped and insisted that if anyone had anything to say to tell it to your face. The words I often said echoed back to me, but in your voice.

Later that night, I called to you from the threshold of my bedroom door. My voice traveled passed the hallway that separates our rooms. My words hung in the air: I would never want to be a teenager again.

Silence.

I was twenty-five, really three weeks shy of twenty-six when I had you. Some say that is young, I often felt like I was growing up alongside you. I spoke to you often as if you were grown, since you were little. Encouraged you to never talk about anyone behind their back. I told you, if ever in the wrong you must own it. Instructed you to own your mistakes like a boss, necessary to come correct, I repeated myself over and over. And, if someone spoke about you, not to cower, to confront the person. Don’t lose your cool, but let them see you are a guerrera in the making. Not in war, but a warrior.

I resisted the urge to tell you what Mami told me, que un amigo es un peso en el bosillo. But, refused to shield you from the darker hues that make up the world. This is why I have warned you, never allow the world to see you as a punk. Because to do so, is to invite others to mistreat you. Weakness must be avoided at all cost. This is the one rule I have insisted on above all.

But, in my haste to arm you against the world. I forgot life requires balance. That the opposite of warrior is peacemaker. Peace starts within, and compassion leads you there. They say to start with self. Still, like when you were little I’m learning alongside you. Being a teenager is the anthesis of peaceful, everything that happens is its own electrical storm. I got you.

Last parent conference all your teachers mentioned what a happy and funny young lady you are. You did well, better than well. Proud. I let out a sigh. I recalled what your early teachers all echoed when they spoke about you: good-hearted, an old soul, an artist.

Yesterday, Friday, you were angry. Hurt. Still frustrated with the “she said I said” bullshit. And through your tears you told me that sometimes you get sad and angry. I stood in the hallway. The door of your bedroom ajar. I saw you. I did not tell you to be a guerrera. I let you be. My heart grew heavy as you listed your worries, grades, friends, boys, fitting in, and then you spoke from another list. The one you called out from between sobs, worried about abuela and abuelo, and how you never gotten over having a half-brother in Colombia, and worry you will never meet. I crossed over to your bedroom, sat on your bed, and listened.

I watched you get ready for your holiday band concert at school. You styled your hair, pulled a dress over your arms, and slipped into a pair of flats. Your eyes puffy from your tears, you turned to me and smiled, thanked me for being your Mama. In turn, I told you how strong you were.  True guerreras know when to soften and to cry, a lesson I’m still learning.

And, at the concert, I watched you play your saxophone, lost in the notes. And, I realized I was wrong. There is something beautiful about being a teenager. It’s that moment before you leave one room and enter another. A transition between your child self and adult self, where you begin the journey to your true self. And everything seems possible. Well, there is nothing more beautiful than that.

 

images

 

Love,

Mama

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Why I only clean on the surface… Now

I told my best friend, Angelique over the phone last week I no longer deep clean. The new Connie only cleans on the surface. Shocked, Angelique questioned if I scrubbed the garbage cans before I put a new plastic bag. Though I admitted I still did, I confessed I no longer wiped the top of my refrigerator with Tilex every week. Long gone were the days that I crawled on my knees to remove the dust between the vents at the bottom of the refrigerator too. I shook my head and counted the lost hours spent color coding Holden and Rubencito’s closet, bills organized in hanging files by dates, Con Edison in the front, National Grid in the center, Verizon in the back.

All necessary tasks needed to maintain order. A false illusion, I know, but for years I armed myself against the imperfections of life with a bottle Fabuloso and a sponge. Certain that perfection was a shield for life’s jolts.

*

If there was ever a cleaning Olympics, well Mami would medal for sure. Mami left her hometown of Chalan once she turned eleven to work as a servant at her Tia’s house in Barranquilla. Cleaned houses to put Joann and I all through Catholic elementary school and later high school. Even now at eighty-one, Mami runs a rag across already clean surfaces, pushes a mop on spotless floors. Self worth and cleaning intertwined long ago for Mami. How much? How fast? Mami bragged, no me ganan limpiando.

Mami scheduled spring cleaning several times throughout the year. Made to rise early on a weekend morning or on a non school day to limpiar, twelve hours of cleaning awaited it. Given the task of the blinds, I pulled them down from every window of the apartment, and placed them in a tub filled with warm water and PineSol. I sat on the closed toilet seat and ran a sponge across each fold. Blessed and cursed with an active mind, the mindless act of digging the dirt from the tight spaces of the blinds corralled my thoughts, if only for some time. I watched the clean water grow murky and gray with dirt. I drained the water once all the blinds were wiped clean, and ran the blind under cool clean water. Once finished with the blinds, I helped Mami move furniture, vacuum in between the cushions of the sofa, dust the wooden entertainment center and the many figurines that decorated the sala.

A vacuum not enough, Mami rented a rug shampoo machine, later she bought one. Joann and I took turns using it through the apartment, I pulled the lever that activated the shampoo through the bristles, and watched the foam soak into the rug. Mesmerized by the circular motion of the brushes, as they left damp imprints on the rug, like tufts of hair left in whirls. Mess and stains disappeared, and the only thing left to see was the order of things.

On these marathon cleaning days, Mami painted the window sills, the door frames, and the old steam heaters. Flaked with rust, now a fresh shimmer gray coated each one in the apartment. Throughout the day Mami stood in front of  Joann and I, her hands on her hips, dressed in a bata and chanclas. A smile spread on Mami’s face, as she surveyed the apartment. Clean. Mami recounted about Chalan, her country side village so poor that homes only had the basic pieces of furniture, but that despite the lack, cleanliness was abundant.

Hours after the apartment was cleaned I sank into my bed, the smell of the rug cleaner filled the air. Fresh sheets and blankets beneath me, everything around me deemed perfect. Fooled, I mistook the illusion for a love of cleaning.

As a teenager I was never asked to clean my side of the bedroom. I organized my closet, drawers, night table, even my backpack with great care. I ran the vacuum quick under my bed, careful to not stick my head underneath, fearful of being sucked below. Hours spent hiding under my bed, even reading below the mattress, a reminder how I longed to escape as a child. I was twenty-one the year I lived in Colombia, I cleaned the floor of the room I slept in with a cleanser called cerolina once a week. I spilled the strong-smelling liquid on the floor, and ran a brush across the floor, a dull matte, luster stripped. Sweat dripped down my face as I rubbed the back of my hand across my forehead, as if homesickness could be removed. I spent most of my Sundays the first two years I was married cleaning. Our first apartment, gleamed, hopeful that it hid the fact that I hated cooking, found baking a bore, and thought home decor pointless.

My obsession with cleaning took to over drive once I became a mom. Plagued by a bout of depression after the birth of my daughter, coupled with the anxiety of motherhood. Cleaning felt familiar, safe, and do able. Worried I was not a good mom nor a good wife if dust accumulated on the shelves, and dresser drawers were not stacked with neat folded t-shirts, leggings, or underwear. I felt less than. I cleaned with vigor and on a strict schedule, judged others that didn’t or did very little. Smiled in their messy homes, smug with the thought of my tidy and in order apartment. Proof I was better. My cleaning rituals only got more elaborate once I had my son, frantic that if I didn’t wipe the back of the toilet twice a week, I was not fit to be a mother or a wife.

Soon resentment sunk in, and I scrubbed the stove while I stared out my kitchen window. I thought of the seasons blended into one another, years lumped together, and how my life grew distant from me. Sundays were just one prolonged goodbye, and I felt the loneliest and saddest on those days. Desperate to escape the monotony, I  sat with my friend Kristin on the benches of Shore Road late in the evening some Sundays. We smoked Marlborough Lights, sipped wine from solo cups we brought with us, and watched the sun fade into the horizon. I thought of how little I read now and the small bits I wrote, I too had faded.

It’s been a few years since I fled my home on those endless Sundays. Scaffolds now placed in my life to keep everyday from becoming one dragged out Sunday. No, huge chunks of time devoted to cleaning, and have since divided my time to include me. The gym, reading writing, praying, and appointments to acupuncture draw me away from my own cleaning marathons.  I still long for what cleaning gave me, a sense of protection against all that can go wrong. But, I realized that absolute sense of control does not exist, and my only real chore  is to surrender.

 

 

Narcos and Surviving Escobar Allias JJ

Today, December 2, marks the death anniversary of Pablo Escobar. Killed in 1993, twenty-four years ago. Growing up, the adults around me hated or loved Pablo. No deep look into what shaped him. Pablo was either El Patron or un monstro.

At the end of the craft intensive workshop I attended last month we sat behind and asked each other questions that writers love to ask one another.  Favorite books? Authors? Genres? Lyrists? Quotes? I listened to those around me, nodded my head to their answers, and gave my own. But, it was the last question asked that I answered before anyone. Pablo Escobar, I said real fast, when asked: what villain in history are you obsessed with?  On the ride home I thought about my answer, and why. It was more than just Pablo Escobar the famous outlaw I was obsessed with, it was the story behind him. The history of Colombia. As with all good stories, there is another story woven. Once unraveled, a glimpse of the truth is exposed.

*

About two years ago I bought a novelty T-shirt with Pablo Escobar’s face imprinted in the center, his name written in script above it. Not for myself, but for my son, Rubencito. He had walked into the living room that summer and caught a glimpse of an episode of Narcos, season one. Pablo Escobar was in the middle of a road, a truck filled with coca behind him, with a henchman at his side, he faced an official in army fatigues. Pablo stared down the man, and delivered the words that later became one of his memorable catchphrases: plata o plomo?

My son asked, “Who is that?”

Both my husband and I turned around and said in unison, “that’s Pablo Escobar.”

Perhaps it was the reverence in our voice which peaked his interest. Rubencito sat beside us and said, “tell me everything about him.”

We told Rubencito as much as we could. His eyes grew wide. First wonder, later amazement, fear, and a sadness too.

When Mami saw Rubencito with the t-shirt, she was pissed. Told me to take it off him, that I had lost my mind.

“Porque?” I rolled my eyes.

“Ese hombre es un asesino. He killed millions. That Avianca airplane filled with so many innocent people, that was the worst. May he be in the pits of hell.”

I turned to my husband, who hated Narcos, but often found himself pulled into a scene despite himself.  And who refered to Pablo Escobar as, Tio Pablo.

I thought about my last trip to Colombia as I strolled through el Norte de Barranquilla. My prima Clara pointed to the fancy stores on the strip mall, “built with dinero de narcotraffico.” I searched her face, there was no hate and disgust nor reverence, but a respect for the order of things in Colombia. I tried to make sense of it. I supposed it was no different from America’s history of being built on the exploitation of others. A different version of capitalism.

 

*

It’s been a few years since Narcos made its debut on Netflix. Careful to take note how many have asked my husband about the show. Whether at a party, wake, dinner, or a quick exchange, people were now interested in the history of Colombia. Asked if the show is authentic? Was it really that bad? His answer never wavers: I don’t want to remember those bad times. Some have placed a hand on his shoulder and nodded their heads. I suspect that in the moment they realized, the show they binged watch, was a country’s history. Others don’t. On a recent trip out of the country for work my husband was asked about the show Narcos during customs. Often pulled off the line and interrogated by immigration officers, but this time flooded with relief he answered questions about Narcos. On the same trip one of the men my husband worked for asked if he could call him Escobar once he learned he was Colombian. It was met with a firm NO.

During the entire season one of Narcos  I asked myself where was Popeye? Popeye, was Pablo Escobar’s number one hitman for El Cartel de Medellin. Real name, Jhon Jairo Velasquez. If Pablo Escobar was the most notorious bandit in Colombia, Jhon Jairo second.

After the end of season three of Narcos, Netflix suggested another show I might like based off my loyal viewing of Narcos. Intrigued by the title, Surviving Escobar, Allias JJ. I watched one episode and another, soon found myself watching the show whenever time opened itself up. Popeye, the main character, Pablo Escobar’s memory braided in the storyline, but it was the character of Colombia that pulled me in. I watched the world of crime and prison in Colombia, told with no agenda other than to tell a story, a unglamorous and unsentimental narrative of Colombia unfolded.

At the very start we meet Popeye who with the blessing of Pablo Escobar turns himself into the authorities in an effort to save his own life and that of his girlfriend, later wife. Certain that he will receive a short sentence and be protected in jail by Pablo Escobar, Popeye plans for a quick and easy prison term. And, like a good story, conflict soon arises in the form of Pablo’s death, and a series of events that leads to a thirty year prison term. Popeye is left to survive his sentence in the country’s capital, a prison separated by three cell blocks, la guerrilla, los paramilitares, and los narcotraficicantes. The latter responsible for the waves of fear sent throughout the country during the 1980’s and 1990’s . Colombia forced to its knees with so many acts of violence, death, and corruption. Corruption, an infection so pervasive and insidious that nothing remained untouched. Powerless to a political structure that did not allow the poor, which make up most of the country, to make advances. Desperate many choose a life of crime, or are caught up in the siege of the guerilla, and their opposition los paramilitares, everyone collateral damage of a country with few choices.

A small crack on a windshield that opens and spreads, webbed with millions of tiny cracks, Colombia’s corruption is that shattered glass. The show, while focused on Popeye, gives testimony to all those fine cracks, through the stories of other prisoners, politicians, judges, lawyers, police, a prison warden, guards, wives and girlfriends of the intimates, the narcos that are free, the guerrilla and paramilitares fighting in the countryside and jungles of Colombia, journalists, and DEA officers, all casualties of the breakdown of Colombia.

An episode at a time, I have gained insight to what it must have been like to grow up in a country where no one is left untouched by the lure of money and the weight of fear. I think about how Pablo gave back to the poor, seen as a demigod by many in Medellin then and now. How after his prison release twenty three years later, Jhon Jairo has a following, seen as a repent assassin. That despite admitting to having killed close to 300 people, and being responsible for the murder orders of over 3,000 people, Popeye has become hero for many. Popeyes crimes are not forgiven, but forgotten, as he shines a light to the facts. The facts about Colombia that helped create two banditos like Pablo Escobar and Popeye.

Along with question about Colombia, and if it was really that bad? My husband is asked another question. I’m asked too. Is it better now with the cartels dismantled? I pause before I answer, aware that the questioner like a small child wants to believe the monster no longer lurks in the shadows. But. The answer is, that the only thing that has changed is that big cartels no longer control the coca trade in Colombia. Young capos realized that a bunch of small groups make it hard for USA and Colombian officials to connect all the dots. Guerilla and paramiltaries invited to take part in this elaborate assembly line operation, each group responsible for their part. It is said that over three hundred groups are responsible for the smuggling of coca out of Colombia to every industrialized nation. The truth is, Colombia still makes a ton of money in el trafico de drugas.

I have romanized Colombia in the past, and a part still does.  But, like all things I now search for the oppressed and the oppressor that exists in every character. Yes, Pablo Escobar committed atrocious crimes and his actions merited punishment. Colombia does not offer life sentences nor has the death penalty, a reason why extradition to the US was what every narco feared. Jhon Jario, Popeye’s list of crimes is not much different from those of his Boss. But, behind their crime is a story. A story of a broken down Colombia, filled with a country full of powerless and hurt people.

 

A letter to his son…

Dear S,

I think about you all the time. I always have. Even before your sister and brother were born. And when they were, born that is, and I thought about you, I looked away. Scared they’d see the secret I kept hidden in that space between brain and mind. The one that dreams, strings stories, and collects those thoughts that drift and flutter throughout the day.

I don’t know where to start, so I’ll start with the beginning. I knew about your existence hours after I arrived in Colombia. The summer you made your way into this world. I arrived June 20th, 1999, and you were born eight weeks later. A Leo like me.

I bet you’ve grown up with more questions than answers. I’d like to answer some… I ain’t gonna front, S. I feel like an asshole, here. I can try to guess what your thoughts would be. I can try to imagine this letter making it into your hands. And what you would say. This letter here, is not really for you, but for me. And, you are right. Now that Holden and Ruben have gotten use to the fact they have an eighteen year old brother in Colombia, I worry a little less about how they feel. My mind given some space, turns to my own worries. Like, that I’m afraid you hate me.

The day after your father spoke to your mother sixteen years after you were born, I sat beside your father while he made that call. The only evidence that nerves ran through his arms, and anxiety squeezed his chest, were all the times he raked his hands through his hair.  Your mother raced to tell him your birth story, childhood, and adolescence in those forty minutes. Saddened, I felt the painful absence of your father in your life, as milestones were retold. And, like the heat of a furnace I felt your anger all those miles away, made known by how long you took to come to the phone that day. If your mother tried to cram every detail in that first phone call, you doled your father bits. Loud pauses, even louder breaks of dead air. I fed your father questions like some Latina Alex Trebek, the jeopardy version of long-lost father and son. Categories like: What do you like to do as a pastime? Who are your favorite soccer players? What about school?

Stupid, I know. But, your father needed questions to stuff into his mouth to keep from asking what he really wanted. Do you hate me?

But, with every question answered. It was clear. All those one word replies you gave, feelings stripped from your voice. They say the eyes are windows to the soul, but I’ve never believed that. Almost everyone’s eyes look sad or pissed off to me, but voices, well I always believed they told stories. You just have to listen. And I listened that day, S. I did. The way you chopped your words, as if you chewed a dry hunk meat between syllables. I could hear all the years spent severing emotional ties from your father, as soon as you realized he was a stranger, now living in America. I suspect somewhere between eight and ten you stopped hoping and started hating.

The only time your voice swelled with emotion was when you asked about your sister and brother. You asked if your sister and brother knew about you. There was a catch in your voice, when you said: saben de me. The way you said it, as if you were an insignificant detail, a bleep. I held my breath. I could see your jaw set, anger tucked in the bone.

Your father had shown me your picture minutes before the phone call. A picture that had been sent to him by your mother days before. It freaked me out. My daughter’s eyes, rested in your face, my son’s chin placed at the bottom of your face, and your father’s jaw had made it there too. But, it wasn’t just his jaw, it was the hair, the gaze, and the way your bones are lined to make up your face. You looked more like your father than Holden and Ruben. Your face so familiar, my heart tugged at itself, and I loved you. Your face was family.

Last night your father watched random videos. One came on, a clip of Will Smith when he was the Fresh Prince of Belair, and the father who abandoned him so long ago, does it once again. Will rants to Uncle Phil, angry and heart broken, the grief is thick. Your father hates drama and sap, never understood America’s obession with tear jerkers, but last night he watched the entire scene. No, sarcastic remarks were made. Only silence. I let him be in his grief, because that’s what it is, the longing for son and father.

At first I blamed both your father and your mother fo your grief. I don’t blame either now. I have learned that life is a series of paths, but I was not part of that particular course. But, I backed you up S. I swear I did. Not just after those days and months after you came into our lives. No, before when I didn’t know your name. You were just his son. I offered to have you come to America, to raise you as my own. Not an option, life unfolded, and I thought of you as someone that I’d never know. With little left to do, I waited. Waited till you would be part of our lives.

But.

Time has not healed. I get it. Really I do. I believe your heart has softened some, your father told me he spoke to you for more than a few seconds this week. That you sounded friendly over the phone. That’s a start.

S, I have to ask… I know I’m an asshole for asking. This is not about me. It’s about you. Your father. Your mother. Holden. Ruben. But, do you hate me? Blame me? Do you see me as the woman that took your father away? I swear I wasn’t. Your parents had been broken up before I came into the picture, the it’s over kind. No, see saw break up, done, over.

And, I fell in love.

I get it if you hate me. Blame me. I know this letter will never find itself into your hands, but I am sorry.

If you ever want or are ready, I’d love to tell you about Holden and Ruben. Not because they are my kids, but your sister and brother are cool. Funny. Think you would really like them.  

Love,

Connie

PS Do you wear that purple bracelet your brother sent you?

On The Streets, They Call Me Iris Chacon

This morning, I hobbled into the spin room at the gym. Sore, hopped on the bike, to the right of the instructor. I turned to my Sunday morning spin comrades, and told them I barely made it in. I had skipped Pilates, unable to scrape myself out of bed any earlier. Before they could ask me why, I told them. I danced for two hours straight, closer to two and a half. My record is four hours, but that was some time ago.

Smiles.

“I had to, don’t you know on the streets my name is Iris Chacon?” I clipped onto the bike.

The Latinas in the room howled.

“I’m Iris! Didn’t ya’ll know?”

*

I learned to dance watching those that know how to dance.

I spent hours of my childhood mesmerized by Iris Chacon. Watched her shake her big ass on the screen, dressed in a body stocking, while the lights of the stage caught the glint of every sequins placed across her chest. A cleavage, that plunged to big breasts, a tiny waist, and round hips. Her bright red hair as wild as her dance moves. Iris looked like a goddess.

Born in Puerto Rico, Iris was known in all Latino homes. Her variety show that she hosted weekly in the 1980’s on Univision was never short on viewers. Mami walked by the television and screamed the word, fresca at the screen. Her eyes glared at me, and then landed on Papi. Papi peered from his newspaper or looked up from his typewriter, and then settled on Iris. I turned towards Papi, and watched his eyes dance across the stage in step with Iris. If only I could grab everyone’s attention like Iris. Glamourous in her high heels and red lipstick, and with each sexy rumba shoulder roll. While, my hair puffed with frizz, thighs stuck together, and forehead resembled a potato.

Comparisons drawn, I felt defeated, and soon wandered from the sala, in search for something other than the truth. I was not beautiful like Iris Chacon. I grew use to the absence of attention, and looked elsewhere. School became my stage, and books the sexy dance moves I could impress those around me with.

*

I learned to dance watching those that know how to dance.

Mami has two left feet, and I’ve never seen her dance ever, not even a quick bounce to a catchy commercial tune.

But, Papi, well he was born to dance. Before being confined to a wheelchair, Papi never sat down for a song. Papi sang the lyrics of every song like he penned them. And, in between the lyrics he whispered, que letra, pero que letra. Driven by the poetry of the words, hand wrapped around a can of beer, Papi’s body pulsated with every beat. Tia Lola, Papi’s youngest sister, often danced alongside him, salsa, merengue, and vallenato, but it was their cumbia that they were best known for. People circled Papi at parties, and cheered him on. But, when it was brother and sister, and La Pollera Colora came on, it was like the Colombian Ginger Rogers and Fred Astire. Silence came over the room, and all eyes made their way towards Papi and Lola. More than once a long flowy skirt was chucked at Lola, and she slipped it on, her pollera. Smiles broad, Papi and Lola’s bodies picked up every call of the drums, melody of the Native flutes, las gaitas, and the European composition of the music. Souls swayed back and forth in response to a time long ago. And, though it was just the two of them circling around each other, the space between their bodies held room for all those that had come before them. Papi danced as if all his ancestors were inside of him, and his moves told a history of Colombia.

I learned to dance watching those that know how to dance.

It was the last summer we would be in Colombia together. And Joann’s last. Maybe, somewhere deep inside Joann knew that, and willed herself to learn to dance. We were seventeen and fifteen, I held a book in my hands, but peered above the pages at Joann. I watched Joann dance with her yellow walk-man as her partner in the first bedroom at Abuelo’s casa. A stand up fan in the center of the room whirled, as Joann moved to the beat that spilled out of her headphones. In midst of the heat and mosquitoes, Joann’s confidence grew, and she danced every chance she had afterwards. During college she entered local salsa club contests and won. She competed with dancers that took years of lessons, her dance studio were those parties.

I learned to dance watching those that know how to dance.

It was in Zumba classes that the basic steps to salsa were broken down to me. Side to side, front to back, a count was given, and my instructor shouted at the class to listen to the beat. And to feel the music. I already learned to dance with music, but  Zumba taught me how to dance to the music.

*

Yesterday, I went to my madrina’s 80th birthday party. I handed my godmother a small bouquet of flowers, and held her hand as she told all her guests that I was her god-daughter. “You look like your Tia Lola,” My godmother stared at me. Madrina and Mami had been comadres decades, and knew each other’s family members.

A compliment.

I chuckled to myself. Several weeks ago my sister and I did our makeup in the same hotel bathroom mirror.  “Oh my goodness, I look like Lola,” I looked at my reflection, which smiled back at me. My eyes moved to Joann’s reflection, her eyes traced over my face, and she shook her head. “You do,” she nodded.

Armed with a fresh gel manicure, winged eyeliner, bright red lips, dressed in all black, and knee-high boots, I was ready to face a Latina party. Small talk, a part of life, like bees in a summer outing, an annoyance, but expected. Saved by music, pulled onto the sala dance floor by the first few chords of Joe Arroyo’s En Barranquilla Me Quedo. I spun on my heels, swung my hips, and shook my shoulders. I belted out the lyrics, like I had written them, and smiled. Tossed my head back and laughed, as some gathered around to watch me and the other two Colombians at the party.

Colombia! Colombia! The cheers by a room of Cubans.

Transported to my year in Colombia. In those early months I watched those around me dance salsa, and longed to join the crowd. Later, after some shots of aquardiente, I found the courage from the licorice flavored alcohol, and danced. Unsure, I stared at my feet the whole time, and cursed Papi for not having taught me to dance.

But, I was wrong all those years ago, Papi indeed taught me how to dance. You let the letra, the lyrics, tell your body the story, and then you feel it, not just your feet, but deep inside of you. When you do all that, everyone will look up and notice. Because you have told a story.  And, everyone loves a story.

My story is: Yo Soy Connie!

 

 

GOALS

 

I hear this word bounced back and forth, goals. Below a picture posted on social media, the word goals appear. Or beside it, an all cap hashtag of #GOALS. The words blink back at me, I make eye contact. Note that the first letters of the words make a complete word, GO, and that beside the A, and L stand at attention, and it ends with an S, not rounded or straight, but curved. GO, stand, beware that no path is straight. The word itself, a reminder to do, to be, and accept. 

Never having thought in goals, the word seemed foreign.

Yes, goals is part of my lexicon. I can spell it, pronounce it, define it, but never understood it. Yes, they are the goals that I love to cheer in soccer. My arms pumped in the air as I jump in place. Pulsated by the energy that my daughter or son’s team has made a goal. If it’s a goal by Colombia , I prance around my living screaming gooooooaaaaaaaal, like a veteran broadcaster.

Then they are the goals that I have my students write out at the very beginning of the year, then again in the middle of the year, and one last time at the end, under the guise of hopes and dreams. Also, the goals my IEP students have to meet as part of their individualized educational plan. But, I never made goals for myself, maybe during my three trials at Weight Watchers, but not really. Weight Watchers, set my weight goals, based on their formula, where five percent of weight loss goal is based on the initial weight of a member.

No, I have never made goals for myself.

But, it was goals that lead me to myself.

A year and a week before I started this essay challenge, I dragged myself to the gym. Heavy with depression, I found myself drowning on land. Inspired by a meme posted by my friend on Facebook, I signed up for a spin class up the block at the NYSC. Exhausted before I broke a sweat, I bargained with myself, I just needed to get through the class. And, if I did, my treat was to climb back in bed. This was my compromise at first. Excited that with every class, I felt less out of breath and less sore, I loaded up the gear, and my endurance grew. I soon found myself studying the gym schedule, and spin classes nudged into my weekday, and not just my weekends. Propelled by results I could measure, I added yoga to my weekly work out schedule, then another, Pilates and boot camp followed. I wondered how long I could keep this up, motivated by each completed week behind me, I looked ahead at the weeks. Time measured by small increments, and strung together, and a year unfold before me.

I created and completed goals, without knowing.

Not a week of the gym was missed that first year. A blue print.

As this essay challenge comes to a close, with forty essays written, twelve more essays to write. Reflection drapes over, and I find myself lost in thought more than ever. I think when I started this challenge I was hesitant and unsure, worried that the challenge was a great undertaking. And, my personal space would be encroached, time tugged away from my manuscript. Who does she think she is? A question that I sure blared on the mind of others, made me anxious, afraid to disappoint. But, what helped me push past those pin pricks of self-doubt was the thought: it’s one essay, another after that, then one more, and…  When unable to think in whole essays, I thought in words, a word at time. I looked towards the word count at the bottom of the document increase.

Goals became the frame my mind saw through. Sacrifices were to be made, and truths to be told.

And, while yes my television watching was cut three-folds, once thought a great injustice, I found it a relief. My manuscript continued to be written alongside the essays, as my stamina grew. Because before these essays I wrote very little. I worked on my manuscript a few days a month, and spent a lot of time fretting about its’ completion. Unable to understand that writing is a practice, that with practice comes progress. Prefection became my enemy, revision my ally, and discipline was formed.

“When you tell yourself that you are going to write and don’t, your subconscious takes note. It stops believing you, like a kid whose alcoholic parent serves them false promises. The subconscious will stop showing up. Discipline comes from habit.” Salvatore Scibona.

This summer I spent a week at the NYPL Cullman Scholar Writing Center, a week of writing for teachers. My writing teacher, Salvatore Scibona like all good writing teachers dispensed advice in conversation and not lecture. His words drifted with ease, and circled. And, only months later did I realize they sunk and burrowed.

These essays forced a discipline on me, one that I never had before. My manuscript, is better because of it, not just the stamina and practice that has come with the challenge, but the layers I have folded back with every essay. Submissions and writing risks seemed less scary after I hit published on my WordPress week after week. Vulnerability still hard, I no longer believe that it will tear me open, and death will ensue.

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I sent my writing buddies, Yesenia and Elizabeth my writing intentions recently. A list of what I want, and am willing to work for as a writer. I told the universe too. Some of my intentions I even posted on social media, because what a public way to whisper to the universe.

And, now.

I persist.

Saved By Story

“Some people don’t know why they are put on earth,” said Yaffa Schlesinger. ”I do. To tell good stories, and to tell them well.”

Story is what saved me as a child. Countless books taken out of the public library as I became lost in the world of the chapters pressed together, and held sturdy by a spine. And, story is what saves me now. Hours spent writing on my laptop in a corner of my apartment, my face propped by the heel of my palm. Words long ago stuck in my throat, loosen, and unclog.

Mornings are the hardest. An assault of questions and request fired at me by Holden and Rubencito. What time will you be home from work? Can you pour me another cup of orange juice. Don’t forget my soccer practice ends later today. Do we have yogurt? We need more contact solution. I pad around my bedroom in acupuncture sandals, in an effort to combat the hands that have climbed up my chest and rest on my neck.  The sun a thin glimmer out my window. I fix my bed, open up the towels on the mesedora in my room, and find solace in these simple acts, as the day awaits behind the windowpane.

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Cafe con leche in hand, my husband sits propped on one of the arms of the sofa, the morning news on. I  walk over to the kitchen, dressed, makeup applied, in search of caffeine. I look at the clock above the stove, not even seven am, and I feel besieged. Coffee in hand I make my way into the bathroom. The small stones of the acupuncture sandals pierce the bottom of my feet, and the two claws on my chest retract, some. The bathroom, my escape room since the early years of mothering, I suspect mothers across the world discovered this before me.  I sit on the closed toilet seat, phone in hand. I scroll. First personal email, writer’s email, and last work email, this is the order I check most mornings, only five minutes alloted. I scan: a meeting to be reminded of, curriculum links, a message from a parent. Then, an email from a colleague about the latest essay on my blog.

Connie,

I was  just about to snap off my computer and your essay popped on my FB feed. I’m so BAD about reading anything on FB, (I just scroll), but just read it… SO good, Connie. SO GOOD and not just that, I can’t believe you are DOING IT, like writing so damn much. You have my total and complete admiration. Dayum girl.

xoxo

D

I read it twice. Smiled. Resumed with the rest of my morning. D’s words surrounded my thoughts, as I kissed my husband good-bye, gulped the rest of my cafe, and washed the breakfast dishes. Wished my daughter a great day as she walked herself to school. SO GOOD, invaded my mind as I drove my son to school, and then turned on Fourth Avenue to drive myself to work. And, as I got closer to work I composed a list, never intended to be voiced to my colleague. Yeah! I must be good, I got into VONA twice, didn’t I? My writing mentor thinks highly of my writing, his words, not mine. I got into Christina Garcia’s Las Dos Brujas. Salvatore Scibona said I was a wonderful writer, surely he did not say that to many. I have a near complete manuscript. One of my blog essays back in August got over 160 plus readers. There was that editor from an imprint of Penguin that liked my sample writing. Also, the essay that was picked up by an anthology of Latina writers. Of course I was good! And, as quick as the cockiness overpowered me, so did the self-doubt. It wasn’t that impressive who was I kidding! Only later did I realize that the list was not for my colleague, but for me.

*

In high school I once wrote a poem about love. Inspired by Carlos I submitted it to an anthology in search of nation wide high school poets. Several weeks later I received a letter from the competition. My poem was accepted, and if I wanted a copy of the anthology a ten-dollar check was needed to cover the shipping and handling. Checks and credit cards were held with great suspicion by Mami, and a money order was sent instead.  The anthology came in a huge manilla envelope with a generic congratulations letter. Excited to see my words in print I tore the package open. Bible thick, a cover like melted rainbow ice from the pizzeria, a swirl of colors, more blue. I searched for my poem and flipped through the pages like a mad woman. My fourteen line poem in the corner of a page. Name underneath. Read and re read that poem several times that day, clutched it to my chest, sure that it was the first of many.

That was twenty three years ago. Decades have elapsed since then. My publishing credits are near nonexistence. What proof do I offer the world that I am a writer?

Another student wrote how her grandfather told his dying wife a funny tale so she could make God laugh. ”It’s gold!” Ms. Schlesinger said. ”

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Mid college one of my sociology essays became part of an anthology. My professor, Yaffa Schlesinger whose class, Introduction Sociology, I took my second semester at Hunter College. Mesmerized by Yaffa’s lectures and passion for art, life, and teaching I became a groupie. I took several of her classes over the next four years. Quoted her to friends, and waited for them to marvel at her wisdom. And when they did I unleashed more pearls at their feet, but when they shrugged their shoulders, I scooped back Yaffa’s discarded words. Overjoyed by her selection of one of my essays, an interview of my paternal grandfather. Embellished and decorated to sound better than the real thing, I wrote what I thought it should be. I confessed to her after class that I wanted to be a writer. That I wrote fiction.

“It was a great essay,” Yaffa nodded.

“I have a story I’m working on, would you read it?” I rushed to ask.

“It will be my pleasure,” Yaffa smiled. She tucked her short brown hair bob behind her ears.

“I will bring it to you next class.” I said and with my books pressed close to my chest, and my back pack heavy on my shoulders I skipped out of that classroom. “I’m going to be a writer one day,” I whispered to myself.

Next class I brought the first pages of what would later become my first manuscript. Delighted I slipped them into a blue folder and placed them on her desk. Days later she returned the folder back to me, and once I walked out of the classroom I pulled out the pages and looked through them. Yaffa marked them with words like: nice, lovely image, great description, and at the bottom she wrote: Keep Writing! Disappointed I wanted more. Now, I understand what I craved at that moment was something Yaffa could not give me. But, what I needed the most, to believe. I needed to give myself that, believe that I could tell stories. And be a writer.

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*

This week I spent my drives to and from work listening to videos from writers on writing. Stephen King’s thoughts on writing, And, Keyese Laymon. I also listened to J.K. Rowling. This is how I armored up to protect the creative soul housed in my body. The one that has to deal with staff meetings, writing report cards comments, laundry, an evening of trick or treating, my son’s homework, lesson plans, chats with my daughter about makeup and boys and life, trips to soccer practice, phone calls to my Tia Lola, best friend, and sister. Because everyone one of those things mentioned must be done. I am a mother, wife, a teacher, a daughter, sister, a friend. And, sometimes writing is paused, and unlike before I’m vigilant for bits of time when I can take my finger off the pause button. I now write because I cannot not write.

And, on a day like today that I was able to read a lot about writing, work on this essay here, and read Yesenia, my home girl’s short story and offer feedback. I cannot think of anything better, writing in between house chores, a dinner of gyros, and reading beautiful work that make me think, me too. And, I think of my writing, my words are good. Maybe even, so good, but I know believing is the hardest. But, I have started to believe.