Mi Patria Querida

Los Carnivales de Barranquilla kick off this weekend, February 25th thru February 28th. When you Google Carnavales and Barranquilla Wikipedia defines it as: the most important folkloric celebration, and one of the biggest carnivals in the world with parades, parties, and orchestra festival. It always begins four days before Ash Wednesday. I define it something else, as the time of year that I’m most lonesome for Colombia. Unlike the summer which is when I spent most of my time in Colombia. Los Carnivales make me long for la tierra de mi padres. I can be found curled up on a corner of the sofa as I search for videos of Colombia, lovesick.
This January twenty-fifth marked seventeen years que no a pisado Colombia. I was shy three weeks from spending Carnivales in Colombia all those years ago. At twenty-two I was naive to believe that many more Carnivales would come across my life. So, I hopped on a plane certain to visit for the next carnivales. Almost eight months in Colombia at the time I ached for Los Estados Unidos. New York City haunted the streets of Baranquilla like a ghost. On late night drives through Colombia I would close my eyes and open them fast, happy that they were tricked to think that in the dark and shadows New York City crept. But life proved to be ornery to what I envisioned. And many carnivales have come and gone in my absence. 2016 promo video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9m1hWdgYdOc

And like a child from a broken home, I have felt divided most of my existence. Shuttled back and forth. Los Estados Unidos my primary guardian. Colombia relegated to extended visits, but never allowed to become home. And like the aftermath of a contentious divorce both parents vie for my love, both jealous of one another and insistent of my complete devotion. This, the price of growing up in two countries you want to be home.

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My sister called me this past summer after a soccer post I put on Facebook.

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“Hey, you put something on Facebook the other day that annoyed me,” Joann started the conversation.

“Oh yeah?” I sat back on the sofa with an eyebrow cocked. Joann was the eldest by two and a half-year, but she toted those fifty-four months over my head like the Wimbledon grand slam trophy. A trademark not unique to my sister.

“Why did you put Patria Querida as a hashtag when Colombia won its last two games?” She demanded. “You were born here,” she was quick to add.

“I know that,” I rolled my eyes.

“So, why did you call Colombia your Patria Querida then?” Her voice softer.

“I was channeling Edgar Perea,” I laughed. And this was part of the truth. Edgar Perea had died a few months earlier in April. His voice as familiar to me as that of a tio or primo. My father, a sports writer for El Diaro de La Prensa was a soccer junkie. Colombian soccer games were broadcasted loud on television alongside with RCN transistor radio that screeched from the kitchen. And Edgar’s commentary after a goal was scored was wild with excitement and filled with pride. He would scream as if he were on both knees and hands balled into fists. The words Goooooaaaaaaaal belted from deep within his gut as if he had an endless supply of air. And he would top it all off with the words: Colombia mi patria querida. His words wrapped tight with love and passion and bound by great admiration. The only thing better than Edgar’s reaction was the score flashed on the screen.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2pj0KbG8uY

“Oh well… that’s ok then.” My sister said, satisfied with my answer.

But I wasn’t. Since underneath my love for soccer and Edgar’s narrations of Colombian games more remained to be unearthed.

Mami would remind us often that we were not like Americanos. “Uds nacerion aqui por accidente,” she would narrow her eyes at my sister and I, her hands on her hips. “Don’t forget,” she warned. And it’s true I always had a keen awareness that I could’ve been born in Colombia very much like my cousins. I was born in Brooklyn, New York– Lutheran Medical Center in Sunset Park to be exact. A fact that was never allowed to be just that, a fact; but instead made to sound like some divine intervention. A debt I owed the universe from the moment I took my first breath.

And so we would never forget that were not Americanas Mami planned many childhood summers spent in Colombia. She would put a deposit on her plane ticket, Joann’s and mine months before the date of departure. And every other week until it was paid off she would walk to Delgado Travel en la Quinta and pay off her balance. A small roll of bills buried in the pockets of her long skirt.

It was an unspoken rule between Joann and I, that once we landed in Enesto Cortissoz Aeropuerto Internacional in Barranquilla we would cease to speak English once the airplane door opened. And we would return to English only when we would see the skyline of New York City as we approached JFK. It was our feeble attempt to safe guard ourselves from the snarled comments: Las Gringas, Esas Gringas, Ellas no son de aqui, Son Gringas, Que Gringas. And if their mouths remained silent their eyes traced the words Gringas around us like crime tape.

Those native to mi patria querida made it clear that I was a visitor and not to get comfortable en casa ajena. But like a child desperate to be made part of schoolyard games I forged ahead. I learned to eat mojarra despite the fried fish head that rested on the edge of the plate. I looked at the fish eyes crunchy from the fried oil as it stared at me. I ignored the bristled tail that rested on my bed of arroz blanco.  I discovered a taste for fresh fruit juices like: sapote, maracuya, and guava. I grew to like pizza sold in stands similar to NYC hotdog stands, and salsa rosada became my favorite dipping sauce. I’d run to the tienda alta on the corner and get yupi queso and chocolatina Jet, and think it tasted better than cheese doodles and Hershey chocolate bars.

During my last visit, after an eighth month stay in Colombia, on the heels of graduation from Hunter College, I grew to love more than just the food. I fell in love with vallenato music, popular folk music of Colombia’s Caribbean region. The word vallenato means born of the valley, which spans from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Serrania de Perija. The romantic verses of jilted men forced to succumb to the horror of heartbreak spilled out of the taxis, homes, and stores. https://sombra+perdida&rlz=1C5CHFA The accordion forced to compete only with the smooth sounds of salsa and the fervor of partidos de futbol.

It was during this stay that I aquired a taste for cerveza that still presents itself to this day. The need to learn how to dance salsa became urgent. Words like: tenaz, rumbear, guacala, juemadre, ni modo, nada que ver, listo, ni loca, and the infamous hijueputa all rolled off my tongue as easily as the American English counterparts. So, great was my need to prove to myself and others that I was Colombiana that after a few weeks I gave up bottled water. I drank from the tap fearless of the stomach pain and runs that would overtake me. As I raced to the bathroom I reassured myself that it was a matter of time before I got use to it.

But I was reminded that I was a visitor despite my new list of favorite food, my recently acquired skill of chugging beer, which rivaled los hombre Barranquilleros. The fact that I could belt out a song by Diomedes Diaz or Rafael Orozco and that I learned the basic front and back salsa step alongside with the side to side. It was meaningless to El DAS, El Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad. The Security Department Agency of Colombia who after three months asked me to either pay a heavy fine or to go back to your pais Gringa.

“But, I’m Colombiana. Mis padres son de aqui,” I countered to the official in an olive-green military short sleeve uniform. He maned Colombia’s security from a front desk of a mango colored building. The letters DAS written in block letters in the front.

“Aqui dice,” he pointed to my blue passport American,”you are from Nueva York.”

“Mi mama y mi papa son de aqui,” I insisted.

“You will have to pay or book a flight by the end of the week,” his face set in a permanent frown.

“I will pay,” I said through tight lips. And reached into my moral, my handmade black and white tribal designed Colombian backpack. I pulled out the equivalent of hundred and fifty dollars in pesos and placed it in el agente’s hands.

“Your country makes it hard for us to go there. We have to go through visas, medical records, and affidavits.” His eyes bitter.

“I didn’t make the rules for Los Estados Unidos,” I turned to walk away, a receipt in my hand and my passport stamped.

“Mira Gringa, you said your two parents are Colombian?” He called after me.

“Si, mi papa de Barranquilla y mi mama de Chalan.” My mouth filled with pride.

“Then do yourself a favor and get yourself a Colombian passport. You are entitled to one because of your parent’s nationality. It will be cheaper in the long run and you won’t have to come here every month and pay a fine.” After he spoke he pursed his lips as if he had revealed some great secret to a sworn enemy. “You can have dual citizenship.”

“Como hago? I now faced him.

“I need a copy of your parent’s passports and your birth certificate. It will be done within a few hours,” He took a long breath. And I wondered if he hated me more for being born in Los Estados Unidos or for having the choice to stay in Colombia.

“I will be back,” I assured him. “Y gracias,” I called from my shoulder as I headed out of the office.

“Senorita,” he called again.

“Si?”

“Los Gringos love Barranquilla. And I mean the real gringos. They say this country and this city especially is one big party. But it’s not a party for those that live here and work here.”

“Yo entiendo,” I shook my head and noticed the sweat that rolled from under his cap. How he had tugged his tight collar a dozen times as he spoke.

And while I have a romanized version of Colombia I know this much to be true. I’m aware that there is a different version or versions. My husband born and raised there does not long for a trip to Colombia like I have for years. It was as if the day he set off to America he slammed the door on Colombia’s face unafraid of hard feelings by his patria.

“Narcos second season is on Netflix,” I reminded my husband in the summer. “We gotta sit down and binge watch,” I wiggled my eyebrows.

“Nah, watch it without me.” He said.

“Porque?” I looked into his eyes.

“Connie, why do I have to watch that? I lived it.” He rested his face on his fist.

“But it’s about Colombia,” I persisted.

“That was not a good time for Colombia.” My husband looked up. “It makes me sad,” he said his eyes clouded with a swirl of emotions.

“Oh,” I let out in one long-winded breath. My husband keeps his emotions tucked and shelved away from him, and his admission was no easy feat. This I knew. And later I watched the season without him, but I tried to see from his eyes. At the end of the season I was left with overwhelming gratitude to not have lived through those dark times in Colombia.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkOKkS7mKfY  I was there during many of those summers, but was shielded from the horrors that unfolded in Colombia at the time. And for a few years, we did not go to Colombia. Mami instead opted for excursions to Canada and there was one to Florida. We also spent a week in Virginia Beach, far away from Colombia.

And while my Colombia is different for my husband and myself, the difference is greater for my Mami and I.

As soon as Mami had secured the deposit on the plane tickets she set out on armando las maletas. We were allowed at the time two pieces of luggage per passenger and a carry on each. So, that was what we would take. A total of six suitcases each topped off at sixty pounds and three carry ons. Mami would begin to collect hand me downs from friends and neighbors for our next trip as soon as we were back from Colombia. She would spend hours while her novella played in the background with neat piles of clothes in front of her. She would fold neat squares of ropa until the maleta was filled to capacity. She would then hoist it on a scale that she kept under her bed. And with a few pounds shy of maximum weight she stuffed  flip-flops she purchased by the dozen at Mini Max. There were plenty of Avon antiperspirants roll-ons and Colgate toothpaste tubes. In between the cracks she fitted countless cheap plastic rosaries and boxes of inexpensive perfumes. The carry on bags she would pack the night before with frozen juice boxes, packages of Kraft cheese, Oscar Meyer bologna, cans of tuna, boxes of jello, and containers of Kool-Aid powdered mix. This was years before a bottle of mouth wash was seen as a national security threat.

Once in Colombia Mami would hand out old t-shirts and jeans to her endless line of family members that would visit. She sat on a rocking chair in a bata and in chanclas with her smile spread wide as she handed out item after item. She would offer slices of cheese to her family members and ask them to taste what America is like. It took me years to figure that our trips to Colombia were more than just to keep Joann and I bound to Colombia. So, that when we are asked where are you from we would answer without hesitation, “Colombian, but born here.” I think the trips were her way to atone. Atone for being the only one of her family to leave Colombia.

My relationship with Colombia is not like that of Mami or my husband’s. No it’s layered under things not said. How Colombia has forced me to prove my Colombianess, while America reflects my Colombianess back to me in response to my lack of assimilation.

It would be cliche and innacurate to say that Colombia is like a long lost lover. No, I miss Colombia like the way you little kids sit on their parent’s lap or slip their head under the crook of their arm and smile at them. And in turn America is the face of the parent that you search for approval, afraid to dissapoint. This essay does not end with neat resolution that I have found both countries to be home. No, the fact remains I love Colombia and I love America differently, but I do love them both. They are both Mi Patria Queridas.

 

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Oh Yeah and… I teach

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I start to think about the topic of the next essay as soon as I hit the publish button of the last one. And that was the case last week. Ideas for essay seven and eight brewed in my mind late last week and early this week. But on Thursday somewhere between early morning and late afternoon this essay began to shape and unfold itself. And like a stubborn child with crossed arms and a scowl this essay refused to be sent to the back of the line. So, I wrote it.

Mami never liked the idea of teaching as a dream. And for the longest time I did not want to be a teacher. As a matter of fact no one was more stunned when I became a teacher than myself. And when I fell in love with teaching I felt betrayed by my own self. I had one dream only, and that was to write. But I lacked a plan. I also lacked a trust fund. And what I lacked the most was believing in myself. And life took turn after turn and my hands were empty of a road map. So, teaching became the means and writing was the dream. I underestimated teaching from the very beginning. It was an opponent that pinned you against the ropes early on in the ring. And to get from under, I needed bob and weave, jab, and I also needed to block. That skill set would take years to cultivate. So, by the time I figured it out I was against the ropes so long it required a mammoth effort to unpin myself.

“Yo no quiero que vayas a ser maestra,” Mami would tell my sister. She was the one that dreamt of teaching when we were kids. I wanted to be rich, eccentric, and travel the world when I was young. And that morphed into being a writer at eleven.

Joann stared at Mami  from behind her glasses.

“Las maestras grow old fast,” Mami explained as if teaching was a time machine that aged you. “Look at your third grade teacher,” she would point out. “When she started teaching a few years ago she looked young and pretty,” Mami shook her head in disgust. “Ahora esta fea y vieja.”

Joann always wanted to play teacher when we were young. She would line up our stuffed animals in neat rows on our beds. Then she stood in front of the two beds with an old TV Guide in her hand and tear out the pages and hand them out to her stuffed pupils. She would walk in between the two beds with a notebook in her hand and deliver reading, writing, and math lessons to a sea of hard plastic and blank toy eyes .

I would sit to the side. The corner of the bureau my desk.  I’d grade the torn pages of the TV Guide and hand out hundreds and nineties to our cabbage patch dolls, teddy bears, and our collection of peluches. That was always the extent of me playing teacher. So, Mami never felt the need to warn me. I refuse to play the what if game. She didn’t warn me. I became a teacher. My sister did not.

Thursday as I raced to work with a cup off coffee in my hand and my backpack flung over one shoulder my mind was a blur of worries. The constant to do list grew with every step I took.  Laundry, run to the bank, my son’s soccer practice, my daughter’s dance lesson, dinner, revisions for my novel, my weekly essay challenge, and the separate endless to do list for my job. Funny even as I type the word job my finger lingers over the keys ready to substitute it with another word that fits. But nothing really fits teaching. It’s a profession of constant learning, demanding work, and it’s a job that requires a tireless effort.

“Ms. Meza,” a parent called out to me as I neared the school.

I looked up and smiled. “Good morning,” I sang out. I was thankful that the first cup of coffee I drank at home already coursed through my body.

“I just wanted to tell you that my daughter loves you,” she returned the smile with a weak one. Her eyes filled with worry as her hair blew in front of her face.

“Walk with me,” I said as my smiled broadened. Sixteen years of teaching and those words still made my heart swell.

“I love your daughter too,” I said. It was true my student while quiet and painfully shy was one of my best writers. She had a sweet smile and sharp eye for small details that were large.  Dainty and soft-spoken there was a maturity greater than her ten-year old self. And already at ten boys noticed her even as she hid behind an endless graphic novels.

“She really loves you more than any other teacher she’s had. You are her favorite,” she said as she walked alongside of me.

“Well you made my morning,” I said, as I thought about my drive to work that morning. Like all mornings, I raced against the clock as I dropped off my two children to school and barreled through Fourth Avenue, with one eye on the clock and the other on the traffic. Radio always on to whatever I’m obsessed with at the moment. The dry heaving started soon after I began to drop off my six-week old daughter to Mami’s and race to work. I blamed hormones, nerves, poor digestion, too much coffee, dairy intolerance, and my own bob and weave between the traffic lanes. Whatever is the reason I have a strong physical reaction as I get close to school. If you spot a woman with her head hung out of the driver’s side window mid gag during morning rush hour that would be me.

“I just wanted to thank you for talking to her yesterday and keeping an eye out on my daughter.” She rushed to say as we reached the front of the building.

“Of course,” I called out to her as I yanked open the door and disappeared. I went back to late afternoon of the previous day where I pulled her daughter, my student, into an empty room on our floor to talk to her.

“I thought we had an agreement,”  I looked at her as she sat across from me. Her straight brown hair parted in the middle, which she tucked behind her ears. “Remember you were going to tell me anytime you were made to feel uncomfortable by anyone,” I leaned into the chair and felt the late afternoon waves of exhaustion  threaten to capsize me.

“I was trying to ignore it, but it really bothers me,” her voice soft.

“Of course it bothers you that’s a normal reaction when you are being teased. Do you know why you are being teased?” I waited for her response.

She lowered her eyes. “They like me,” her face red.

“And that’s normal for boys and girls to like each other. But what’s not cool at all, is to tease and make you uncomfortable.” I shook my head as anger crept into my chest.

“I know,” she looked up at me. “This happened a lot last year too, but I try not to let it get to me, but it does. ”

“Can I tell you a story?” I asked.

“Sure,” she smiled. “I love when you tell stories.”

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My first year of teaching I learned bribery was an effective behavior management tool. On hot days without air conditioning in the classroom and windows that never opened all the way I bargained with my students. “Do all your work and at the end I will tell you one of my stories,” I’d barter. I had a collection of fun stories I shared from: how I almost drowned in Bermuda, my lasik eye surgery and how afraid I was, the time a rat crept into my bed in Colombia, my disaster on the parallel bars freshman year of gym class, and how I went sky diving at twenty-one.

But this time I told another story. And as I sit here and write. I don’t think it was much of a story, but more like an admission. “I get it,” I looked straight at her. “All this attention that you are getting and you don’t want,” I took a long breath. “When I was your age I was nowhere as pretty as you. But by the time I was eleven I looked like a woman.” I watched her eyes widen. “My face looked like a kid’s, but my body well it looked like a woman’s.” I let my eyes drift from her face.

“And boys liked you?” She asked.

“No I was never popular with boys, but boys and men made comments about my body. And I hated it. It made me feel uncomfortable.”

“So, what did you do?”

“I hid. I hid under layers of baggy clothes. I also started to wear all black when I was fourteen.”

“Really?” she looked up at me in wonder. “When the boys stare at me or say stupid things about me to the other kids loud enough that I can hear I don’t want to raise my hand. I don’t want them to look at me.”

I studied her before I spoke, “You can’t do that because then you are falling into their trap. I don’t want you to shrink or hid. I will talk to the boys that are teasing and making fun of you.” I searched her face to see if there was permanent damage. But like the incubation of a virus there were no signs or symptoms that I could see right then and there.

That afternoon as I drove home and I thought of my eleven year old self. My eleventh year I decided I wanted to become a writer, and that winter I got my period too. And instead of running to tell Mami and Joann I kept it a secret. I blamed Mami. She was prone to unpredictable reactions. I told her a year and a few months later. Now, I suspect there was more to my period being a secret. I think I wanted to hide the fact from myself more than Mami. My body developed curvy and soft months before my period came. And with every curve of my hips and bounce of my chest stares and comments accompanied. Grown men leered, boys joked and snapped my bra strap, and the more my body developed the more I shrunk inside.

On my way to work on Friday a few blocks away from school I began to gag. Winter recess was just hours away I told myself. And I listed off all the things that I would do this upcoming week: read, write, go to the gym in the morning, rest, spend time with my kids, more time for my chores, and on went my list. My wave of nausea eased and I suspected that my soul disagreed with teaching because it took away time from what I love. That writing blames teaching for cock blocking all the play it could get. It’s foolish to think that way because teaching feeds my creativity as well. They are more similar than not, both very difficult and require tremendous reflection. And they both reside in me.

I’m sure that when I go back to work next week there will be that fear and nervous knot in my gut. And I will have to open the windows and grasp at the fresh air as I drive. Or as I walk to the school building I will have to bite my lip as I force myself to not gag.  And there will be a meeting, endless paperwork, a crisis in the classroom, a parent that needs to talk to me, a student that needs more than just a lesson on fractions, but there will be me. The me that has just begun to understand that moments are fleeting. That bad moments ebb and flow as do good moments. So, why not be present even when you want to race your car in the opposite direction or hug your student till the tears that you have fought all day slip down your face. And maybe when you do that the knot will loosen, and you will not feel bound and gagged.

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Stories Inside…

 

imagesOutside my kitchen window I see a swirl of snow. It matches the swirl of words in my mind. My first thought when NYC schools were closed for today was—I can write and read in long swallows and not just quick sips. And because I write in small sips, I’ve learned to write anywhere: on my bed, on my rocking chair, on my couch with my laptop balanced on the arm rest like a makeshift desk. Or like now, I write in the kitchen on a tiny table surrounded by a bowl of bananas and rows of bottled water. I can write in any physical space, just yesterday a thought came to me during spin class. I pulled my phone and wrote a few lines in notes before the thought disappeared like the foggy details of a dream. Once the words were settled somewhere other than my mind I could climb back to third position. I pumped my legs in unison to the beat of Biggie’s Hypnotize, at ease that my words had not drifted away from me. A writing journal is always in my backpack, my phone acts like a digital memo pad, and words scribbled on my hand with eyeliner have become the impromptu loose leaf and pen. My mind writes all the time, unfazed by where I am or what I might be doing. It’s very much like my ability to sleep in crowded trains or buses and during flights, unlike sleep though, writing demands for me to stay woke.

And for a few years I was dormant.

“I’m so excited!” I turned my head and smiled at my daughter and son in the back of the car as my husband weaved in out of City traffic.

I was on my way to a five-hour workshop with Vanessa Martir on Writing Fiction From Our Lives. My backpack on my lap, stuffed with: my laptop, my black binder– manuscript, a folder with required reading texts, and my writing journal. I didn’t know the particulars of what this class would entail, but being that I’ve already taken a workshop with Vanessa over a year ago I knew the class would be dynamic like the teacher. And Vanessa was filled to the brim with VONA magic. Since our email exchange earlier this week about attending this class I’ve been giddy with excitement.  The night before her class I was anxious to fall asleep, so it could hurry and be the next day. Five hours to write, I was intoxicated by the thought.

“I’m so hungry!” My son whined.

“When we get close I will see what’s around,” I scanned the streets for a Subways or a deli, or a pizzeria.

“I’m hungry too,” my daughter chimed in from the back seat.

“I could go for some food,” my husband nodded his head.

“Pull over,” I pointed to a pizza shop on the corner of the next block. “I will go in grab you a couple of slices and then run to my class,” I offered. The thought that I should be home making a meal for my family instead of attending a writing workshop crammed into my head. A list of defensive arguments ensued, as I pleaded my case to myself, and with the same amount of passion as la doctora Polo that Mami always watched. You need this. It’s only five hours. You did laundry Thursday night to make this happen. Pizza is tasty, cheap, and better than fast food.

I raced down the street with fifteen minutes before the class started. As I waited for the slices and chicken roll to be heated I stepped outside. I drew up my shoulders against the cold February winter, and jammed my hands in my pocket. The bustle of the City unfolded in front of me. Though I was in Downtown as opposed to Uptown, Hunter College memories flooded my memory. It was the end of my sophomore year when I took my first fiction class. I spent hours polishing my short stories during the long train rides from Brooklyn’s 9th Avenue to Manhattan’s Lexington and back. I would alternate between drafting and reading short mentor texts given to me by my professor. A tall black woman who changed her last name to be a fusion of her two favorite writers, and wore head wraps and African print dresses. I sat in my overalls and envied her spirit. She fed us a steady diet of short stories by writers like: Zora Neale Hurston, Maxine Kingston, and Maya Angelou. We sat in a circle, our desks touched, and she would look every one of us in the eye, and whisper: sweat the language. I would shake my head and murmur to myself certain that she just gifted the class some great writing wisdom. But the depth of what she said would take years to cultivate in my mind, and later my writing.

Back inside the pizzeria I was given a pizza box and the change from my twenty.  I ran up the block to my car still parked with the directional on. I placed the pizza box on the dashboard and grabbed my backpack. “Me voy,” I stuck my head back in the car and blew a kiss into the car. I turned on my heel and power walked to the building where the class was located.

“I’m here for a writing class,” I told the front desk my face loaded with a smile.

Once inside the classroom I picked a spot in the front, but to the side. This was where I felt most comfortable in life, tucked to the side. I placed my writing arsenal in front of me in a neat row: laptop, binder, folder underneath, journal, a purple flair pen, pencil freshly sharpened and a barely used pink rubber eraser on top. I ran to the bathroom before the class would start and then scurried back.

“Connie did you sneak in without giving me a hug?” Vanessa called out as I sat down.

“Sorry bathroom,” I explained. I walked up to her and hugged her tight. And in that short embrace there was layers of unsaid things. V’s weekly personal essay posts for the entire 2016 year started out as one thing for me, but later shaped out to be something greater for me. Already a fan of her short fiction, nonfiction narratives, blog posts, her essays were a welcomed read.  https://vanessamartir.wordpress.com/  It was later that I realized they would become a scaffold to help guide me to me. Week after week I read and applauded Vanessa’s tenacity and fire, as well as her unapologetic sense of self. It was sometime in the Spring that her words began to grip me by the shoulders. Often time her writing felt tailored made for me and what was happening to me in that instance.  Her words inspired me to want to chase my own writing dreams and live with that same fire. So, when the #52essays2017 challenge came up I was more than interested, but worried that my secured spot in life to hide on the side would be compromised. In a comment on V’s post about launching the 2017 essay challenge I wrote: This keeps calling to me. In which she responded, so do it. And I did.

As I walked over to what would be my desk for the next five hours I took in the room. Behind the laptops and pretty lined journals poked out about a dozen Latina faces. I would soon learn that those faces represented a large span of Latin America: Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador, were presente.  No, icebreakers were needed, our writing would break the ice soon enough. Writing groups, workshops, retreats, and conferences create these soul connections among writers that leave profound imprints no matter how brief the encounter. It’s that artistic space where shared words are a map’s legend to the soul.

And that was what I did prompt after prompt, I yanked and pulled and left a part of me on each page. I wrote for short bursts. My pen like a pair of runner’s legs covered a long distance in twenty minutes. When the timer went off I’d lift my head breathless and disoriented.  Then like a boomerang I was back in the class from the place the pages of my writing journal transported me to. As the day went on the writing took on an intensity very much like a fever that threatened to leave me laid out. I could not hide behind well composed paragraphs and well placed symbols and vivid sensory images. It was raw and painful. I wrote about the shit that I pressed down, crammed and shoved away like a luggage slammed shut by will and weight.

Artists always have muses or themes. Edgar Allen Poe wrote about Annabelle Lee, John Lennon had Yoko, Botero has a thing for gorditas, and I have Mami. My biggest muse as a writer has always been my mother. Damn my novel is about an adolescent girl and her relationship with her mother. My short stories always have a maternal figure drawn from Mami. My nonfiction narratives can always be counted on to have Mami tucked into a handful of sentences at the very least. And in my essays Mami always steps out for an appearance like Spike Lee in his movies, however brief. But, this time Mami didn’t come out to play during Saturday’s five hours. She was there, but unlike herself off to the side, and in that void the men in my life came out to play. And like a band of misfits, my father, my ex boyfriend, my estranged cousin, my husband, and my dead cousin filled the stage.

After each writing excercise we jotted a few lines on slips of ripped paper and they were collected and read a loud by a different writer in the room. Our names to be signed underneath our words. We owned our words even minutes after we wrote them.

“So, you can hear your words in someone else’s mouth, because they will sound different,” Vanessa said as she walked around the room and collected the bits of paper. She walked around again and gave us different slips and we read them a loud. The words were given revereance only the way other writers can.

The first go around I punk’d out and picked something safe and to the side to be read. After my words were read I  fought the urge to raise my hand and say I wanted to write something else. What I had wanted to share was: I listened my eyebrow cocked and lips twisted to the side. My husband would never stand for that list. There was little that he could stand for. It was his machoness that made me fall in love with him. 

Later on I told the group I was embarrassed to write down on the scrap something that I written. “That I fell in love with my husband’s machoness,” I took a deep breath and waited for the onslaught of side-eye glares.

There was none.

“That’s what we are raised to think,” Vanessa smiled at me. “What about been there and done that,” she laughed.

In that safe space I wrote and shared and dug. And when I tought there was nothing more to write I dug deeper and wrote more and shared more.

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My notebook was filled with five very rough short story possibilities at the end of Saturday’s workshop. Some I will use and others I will dissect for good lines or an image I could dress up more.  I’ve been writing my novel for so long that I forgotten so many more stories reside in me. My essays are like a new relationship I’m courting. It’s exciting and fresh. My novel, years in the making, is my heart. It’s gone through many evolutions as I evolve so does my manuscript. But lately I’ve heard an urgent whisper as riffle through my pages of my novel kept neat in my black binder. Finish the rustle of the pages whisper back to me. The tone is calm not manic, certain and not unsure, but it is persistent.

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Sweat the language I tell myself on the days that I work on my novel late into the night or early early in the morning. Write it all down, get it out and down. And only now after so many versions of Connie do I get what my college professor, my first writing teacher, meant so many  years ago. You have to work that language, work hard and sweat from that dig that writers must do. The one Vanessa had me lean all my weight and fear against this last Saturday. And only when you have done that will your soil be rich, and your stories, all the ones that live inside you sprout. Sweat the language.

 

A Writer’s Intention

 

My yoga teacher has us set our intentions at the very beginning of practice. And like the AIM that my ninth grade social studies teacher wrote at the top of the black board its purpose is to remind us we are in class to learn. There is deviation on how our body starts each practice: lotus, child pose, hero’s posture, or on our backs, but intentions never varies. In the stillness of our first post we ponder our intentions. I was in search for a good stretch when I wandered one Tuesday evening in the spring into this yoga class. A well deserved one after a rigorous spin class in the room next door. But what I found was greater than a stretch and so much deeper.

“Set your intentions yoginis,” his voice steady and calm. “Intentions are different from expectations. Expectation leave you disappointed and powerless, but intention is more. It’s purposeful. What are you willing to work hard for? Name it and then work hard to attain.”

Week after week his words have pour on me like morning rain. Seeped beyond my bones to that layer deeper than tissue and close to the soul. My intention started as a timid wish, then crawled up my back to a quiet hope, and is now a great longing. Simply, to be the best version of me. What I did not realize was how close the universe leaned in to listen. And how the world conspired and conspires like a giant post-it note to remind me of my intention.

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The best version of me writes. She does more than that, but writing made the top of the list easy.

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In August I printed my entire manuscript on three hole punch paper and slipped the pages into a black binder. One day at the park as I read through my pages I began a list of the hard scenes that I have put off. A word at a time I would write them and only then would my book be complete. I written a few of those hard scenes and chapters already, but others still percolate and are yet to be written

 

Early in the fall at writing group my writing teacher talked about writing conferences with our students.

“You have to act like what your student chooses to write about is fascinating,” she adjusted her glasses and nodded in our direction.

We sat in her living room, a group of five writers who are teachers. Talking shop always took over the first few minutes of our workshop. A ritual that’s always been, as if talking about being teachers for a few minutes is a prerequisite to shed that jacket and our writer selves could be uncovered.

“But what if they are writing about something boring like blue jeans?” One of the members asked.

“Yeah,” I joined in. “How many essays on Minecraft and NerfGuns can I read?”

“It’s always underneath there… the story. You have to really believe it as their teacher that they have something important to write about. But you got to lead them there.” My writing teacher assured.

I cocked a skeptical eyebrow.

Her eyes met mine with certainty. “Here, let’s do it together, right now. Pick something really inane to write about.”

I was a writing student of my writing teacher for over ten years and trusted and admired her. Not only a great writer, but was the kind of teacher you aspired to be in the classroom. So, I scanned the room and searched for something ridiculous to write about. My eyes landed on my black Jansport. “Ok, my topic is my backpack,” I pointed to shapeless lump with straps by my feet.

“Tell me about it,” she crossed her feet and rested them on the toy paino that belonged to her two sons.

“I don’t know it’s a black back pack,” I laughed.

“How do you feel about it?” She continued her gaze focused.

“Well I love it because it was a hand me down from my good friend, but it has way too many pockets.” My legs crossed, I bounced my foot. I became aware of the rest of the group members eyes on me.

“Tell me more about those pockets.”

“They annoy me because they are so many and I’m always forgetting where I put my keys or phone or wallet. Sometimes all three,” I laughed again. Jokes forever been my trapdoor when cornered.

“Go on,” she said.

With nowhere to go I hurried to finish this conference. “It’s heavy too. I always carry so much around.” I pulled the back pack to my lap and began to open up all the compartments in hopes to shift the attention.

“Can you say more,” she nudged.

I stuck my hand in the top pocket and searched. My fingers traced a tube of lip gloss and eyeliner pen. “It’s dark and I always have to dig around because so many pockets make it perfect for my things to hide,” I pulled my hand and reached for the larger pocket in the front of the backpack. A journal and two novels we jammed in there.

“So, why does that bother you?”

I took a long breath before I spoke, “Maybe because it reminds me of me.” My throat tightened and I bit the inside of my cheek to distract myself from what I felt. It was a habit I discovered years ago. If I made a small hurt somewhere else then the big hurt would be too distracted to hurt.

“How?” she asked.

I watched the members heads move from her face to mine. Their teacher selves ready to jump in and help student uncover a lesson. But the writer in them sat and took note as a scene unfolded in front of them.

“Because that’s what I do I hide.” My voice shook with emotion. “I hide. And hide parts of myself. I shove it so far down I forget about it. Then afterwhile it seems lost… like in my backpack.”

There was a long silence after my words rushed out. I stared at the bookshelf in the corner of the room. I wished I could hide in between the spines of the books. “I get it,” I looked at my writing teacher. And at the moment I understood what she meant. That the soul and writing are like a shy couple that want to dance together, but don’t want everyone to gawk at their clumsy steps. But they eventually lead one another to the dance floor aware that one can’t dance without the other.

Long before I took on this essay challenge I penned bits of essays in daily texts to my sage friend Sandra, scribbled on post its, notes on my phone, and as I stared into space during the few moments of stillness my busy days offered imagery revealed itself. My words longed to be written outside of the chapters of my novel that I worked on a few times a month late at night or early in the morning. Throughout my writing life only my teachers and workshop or group members have seen my writing. Afraid to be seen and pulled out of the shadows of my perpetual game of hide and seek I have behaved like a shy toddler with my writing. My chin buried down to my chest as my eyes snuck suspicious glances around me. And offered pieces of my writing to those that have coaxed and given a kind smile. My bestfriend for years would ask for pages and I obliged, but she was an exception.

Late fall at writing group I bought one of those difficult chapters, like a misplaced item in my backpack it was shoved deep in the bottom. Mid read my eyes, throat, and heart got tangled all at once as I read: I don’t remember walking back to my room. I sat down on my bed and stared ahead. I twisted the white rag still in my hand until my palms ached raw. And like a skilled crafts man I busied myself to fix this surge of pain I felt, which threatened to leave me dead on the ground. I made myself feel nothing. Nearly two decades later I  cried in front of the group as I realized I never gotten over my cousin’s death. My teacher read the rest of the pages a loud as I sat and listened to my words being read. Eyes clouded in tears I fought the urge to scream.

Next group I bought an essay on teaching that I written over the summer. One I wanted to polish and submit. But also  in need of a pause from the heavy and hard. In a line in the essay I wrote that teachers bury stuff in order to go on with everything needed of us in a school day.

“This part is different,” my writing teacher said. “That’s when the essay felt more personal and not just another essay on the diffuclties of teaching. Because it was about you and how you are as a teacher,” she waited.

“What do you mean?” I asked unsure how my sentence how teachers bury things was this big personal connection.

“That part about burying was personal to you.  You bury as teacher. I know a lot of teachers that don’t bury. That cry in the teachers lounge or in the staff bathroom. So, stop hiding by saying teachers bury and march on. No, say I bury and march on with my lessons.” My writing teacher’s gaze pressed into me.

I took a long breath and sighed, “Oh.” And I got it at the moment. I understand that  I was once again hiding and burying. But the magnitude of what I learned would reveal itself over time.

Her words echoed in my mind as I drove home later that night. Writing was my mirror where I could see beyond what those see when they come in contact with me. Or what I see when I look in the bathroom mirror or up on the rearview mirror. And to get an image reflected back at me I must sift through my backpack. It carried a lot. A heap jammed in there and much forgotten and lost in the many pockets and dark corners. The weight of it all on my shoulders. And if I searched in my backpack I would come across treasures along with things long overdue to be thrown away.

Last Friday my friend reached out to me after she read my last post. We texted back and forth and she said I was brave to write and share what I have posted. She was proud and inspired. I thanked her. Later that night I worried that my soul and my writing would not keep up on the dance floor. That all the eyes on this waltz would note when I fumbled for a word or lost my rythm and worse failed to emote emotion. And when those fears come in and sit on my lap as I write. I think of Stephan King’s advice to writers in his book, On Writing.  He gives countless no nonsense advice to writers. One that struck me was: In the end it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.    

That is not to say there is not this loud nagging voice that whines at me and says: Who do you think you are? And when that voice gets louds I reach out to my writing community and find great comfort and inspiration with them. But also sometimes they find me. My VONA sis Elizabeth private messaged me last week. Her words I’ve re read and re read. Your words have a soft- spoken stregnth without the need for anything to amplify them..you don’t need loud speakers when you know how to use the mic.

So, I continue this dance of soul and writing, this screen I stare at my dance floor.