Close to Home: La Impostora Edition

Part I – In which she tries it.

Last week I gave a workshop for young women in a close-to-home program. The assignment I was given for preparing the workshop was to spend some time talking about myself – what I do, what kinds of people and decisions shaped me, that kind of thing. And then I was supposed to lead the girls through an activity of my choosing. Easy? Ha!

First there is the trauma of having to spend time talking about myself to a bunch of young people who don’t know me and didn’t ask to know me. What on earth was I supposed to say to them? What was going to be interesting to them about some random old lady they’d never expressed an interest in? As I said: trauma.

Next, the is the question of the activity of my choosing. Gaaah! Just as troubling as talking about myself, and for the same reasons. Yes, I was a teacher for many years. Yes, I’ve facilitated many workshops. But … Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense, but it does, too. Because (OF COURSE) La Impostora was on the scene, looking the side of my head, making sure I was aware of just how good a mistake I’d made when I’d agreed to do this workshop. Sigh.

But then a thing happened: La Impostora’s noise helped me! I thought, why not have my workshop be about Impostor Syndrome?! I know it affects so many of us, and surely the young women I’d be meeting could benefit from hearing about it, from realizing that they aren’t alone, that lots of people have that inner mean voice that works triple-time to beat them down and hold them back.

This seemed like a stroke of genius, some much-needed divine intervention. I could still hear La Impostora, but I kept going, tuning her out as best I could.

In the end, I drafted a workshop plan with two themes: pushing back against La Impostora and practicing gratitude. They do and don’t go together, but I thought it would work, so I got my materials together – including ordering a 2-lb lb. bag of tumbled stones so the girls could reach choose a rock to help with their gratitude practice.

Part II – In which she demonstrates that she really knows all the buttons to press.

Workshop day came, and I was ready: stones, markers, multi-colored index cards … all the business. The workshop was scheduled for 6pm, so when I left for work that morning, I had a whole day ahead of me before I’d head to the group residence.

That was more than enough time for La Impostora to get in gear and back into my head. I should have known she wasn’t finished with me.

About midway through my morning, I realized my workshop was going to flop. And miserably. How had I imagined that I could teach anyone anything about Impostor Syndrome when I didn’t know how to deal with it myself? Those young women were going to expect me to know something, and I was going to stand there with not one bit of helpful anything to share with them. I was most definitely going to fail and fail spectacularly.

At one point in the midst of this steady repetition of oh-how-much-you’re-going-to-suck, I even said to myself, “This isn’t Impostor Syndrome. This is just what’s true.” Yes. Said that to myself. And was totally serious. That stopped me, made me pause and think maybe what was actually true was that I was caught up in some Impostora spin right at that exact moment.

I let her rattle me some more, and by the time I left for the group home, I was well and truly convinced that I would be splendiforously bad. How could it be otherwise?

Realizing what was happening didn’t make it stop. And that surprised me. Usually, calling out what was happening did the trick and set me on a different course. On my way to the house I tried to puzzle out why that tactic hadn’t worked. And I had an interesting thought: maybe I should have done exactly what I was about to suggest to the girls:

  1. Hear La Impostora’s mean comment.
  2. Shut her down and stop that thought.
  3. Apologize to myself for saying such mean things.
  4. Replace the mean thoughts with positive ones.

Oh, look: an actual process for redirecting my brain! Imagine that.

I didn’t make this up. I stole it from a book I read years ago. I’d forgotten about it. And then, as I was planning the workshop, there it was, bubbling up from the back of my brain.

So I got to the house and did my workshop, and it was fine. Was it the best workshop I ever gave? Hardly. We were all too thrown off by having our evening begin with some unplanned police activity at the house. So our start was rocky, and we took some time to work back to normal from there. But – La Impostora and law enforcement interruptions notwithstanding – the workshop went well!

Highlight of the evening? Letting the girls choose gratitude rocks. What’s this, you ask? Another thing stolen from … I don’t even remember where. You keep a stone in your pocket (I keep one in a pocket of my purse and another on my nightstand), and every time you reach into your pocket and touch it, it’s a reminder to think of something you’re grateful for. It’s a silly mnemonic, but I like it.

I used to carry a beautiful piece of aventurine in my pants pocket, but then I almost lost it, and that was too upsetting, since my Aunt Mildred had given me that stone. That’s the one I keep on my nightstand now. The stone in my purse is a beautiful piece of labradorite. I’d be sad if I lost it,  it it has no sentimental significance, so I’d get over it. I’m extra, with my semi-precious stones, but there’s no need for all that. Any smooth pebble will do. And it doesn’t have to be a gratitude stone. Someone gave me a river stone once with the suggestion that I use it as a reminder to say something nice to myself.

The girls loved the stones and took a long time talking through how they were making their choices: what colors they loved (quartz and rose quartz were big faves), what memories or thoughts the stones triggered, what aspects of their personalities the stones represented. It was fascinating and fabulous. And I was thrilled by how into it they were. I walked out of the house smiling – which is, of course, the equivalent of thumbing my nose at La Impostora.

Stone2
My lovely bit of labradorite
Stones2
The leftover stones after the girls made their selections.

Does this mean I’ve won this forever-war? I’m sure not. But I do think it means I’m closing in on that victory, on whatever victory would look like. Maybe I’ll always run up against her, but maybe I’ll get to a place where I’m always the victor, where she never accomplishes more than giving me a nanosecond of pause. Victory indeed.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Close to Home

Last week I gave a workshop for young women in a close-to-home program. I thought I understood every part of what I just wrote, but it turned out that my understanding was way off the mark.

Because of the work I do, I’ve gotten used to the definition of “young adult” being 16 – 24 years old. That’s the age range used for the kinds of programs that are funded to support “out-of-school youth” and “disconnected youth” and “opportunity youth” … and whatever other names we choose to give young people whose circumstances have made the transition to adulthood more difficult. These are the young people I taught in my basic education and high school equivalency classes years ago. All of the students I wrote about in those days fell into this 16-24 category. The range is fairly well cemented in my head.

“Close to Home” is the name of a juvenile justice initiative that focuses on keeping young people close to their families and communities rather than sending them to detention facilities that are too far away for their families to visit them easily. I don’t know if these programs exist in other states – though I hope they do – but we’ve had them in New York since 2012. Before leaving my last job, I attended an info session/focus group discussion about close to home programs. One of the community organizations we worked with was about to open a residence in the neighborhood and wanted other providers to know about the residence, understand what the program would look like, and offer possibilities for partnership in providing services to the young people who would live in that home.

As it happens, the definition of “youth” in the Close to Home model is very different from the one in my head and at my office. In New York City, Close to Home has enabled the City to completely eliminate prison for kids under 16 by placing them in group residences near their home neighborhoods.

Right. Young people isn’t the same as young adults. Not by a long shot. I wasn’t at all prepared for such young girls. The girls in my group were 14 and 15, and that was definitely not who I was expecting to meet. The workshop I prepared was, luckily, adaptable enough, but adjusting my brain wasn’t so . You just don’t talk to 14 year olds the way you do to 24 years olds.

The bigger misconception for me was what it meant for these young people to be living at this Close to Home group residence. I kept being surprised by my surroundings. Surprised by the level of security, surprised by how monitored the young women’s time was. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting, but clearly it wasn’t the same as what I was seeing.

I kept bumping up against how regulated the girls’ actions were. I’m sure this sounds silly because the definition of the program is that this program offers an alternative detention placement, doesn’t eliminate detention all together. The young people in these programs have greater or lesser degrees of freedom depending on the type of program they’ve been assigned to, but they are still serving out the time they’ve been given, they are still detained.

As I thought more about the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing, I realized that I’d been thinking of the group home as a halfway house, a middle step between incarceration and re-entry. In some ways, I suppose that is a function of the Close to Home group residence – the girls aren’t going to have to transition from a prison or from being cut off from their families – bu t there are constant reminders of the fact that the girls lives aren’t their own.

Realizing my halfway-house confusion highlighted that I have a lot to learn about this program. For example, what is the relationship between local police and these residences? When I arrived to give my workshop, there were police on-site, called because there was some disturbance with one of the young people. In the end, they took that young person away with them, which was incredibly disconcerting to me … and even more disconcerting once I fully understood the reality of the homes as a form of detention. If you are already detained, what does it mean to have the police called to further police you?

Certainly I think it’s better to have young people – and ones who are so young – detained near their families. The girls in my group all talked at one point or another about family visits that had happened since they’d been placed in the group home. That is better than their families having to miss work days to travel upstate or not be able to take that off time and wind up not visiting as a result. And the group home is better than local incarceration, too. The memory of my one visit to a prison tells me that. The horrifying vibe I got from the male guards at that facility makes me happy the too-young people I met – those children – clearly don’t belong in a prison environment.

So yes, better than regular incarceration … but still distressing. Doesn’t there always have to be a better option for children than jail? And yes, I’m asking that seriously, even as I watch this country imprison thousands of children, watch this country force infants and toddlers to represent themselves in court. And yes, I know all the reasons that its it’s easy to consign these children – these brown and Black children specifically – to prisons and detainment facilities. I know. I still have to ask the question. Have to.

Two hours. That was the entirety of my experience with that residence and those girls. It was enough to leave me with all this to puzzle over. I stay having so very much to learn. Sigh.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Human Touch

In physical therapy, as I’ve written about a few times in the past, you have people handling your body, rubbing, patting, stroking your body. It’s a constantly strange truth.

I imagine that, for some people, it isn’t strange at all. For people who have been allowed to grow up without any unwanted, uninvited touch, without any body shaming, without any violence, the intense, intimate touching of PT must just feel … harmless? Helpful? It must feel like what it is: therapy to help you recover from an injury. I have no idea what that could feel like, to be able to let someone touch you so freely, so thoroughly, without flinching away or drawing into yourself. I still fight against my therapists’ hands, still fight my startle response and my inclination to jerk back, harden myself against that touch.

*

In Jamaica, in the town where I like to stay, there is an American massage therapist. I had my first massage with him in the summer of 2005. It was much more intimate than what happens in PT. I was covered with a sheet, but under that … nothing but panties. Before I got undressed that first time, we had about three minutes of conversation about what kind of body work he would be doing, about any particular aches or irregularities I might be feeling, about any health concerns he should know about. Then he left me alone to disrobe and secret myself under the sheet. And then we got started.

And it was entirely fine. Somehow, it was entirely fine. It’s a truth that makes no sense. I didn’t fight him, didn’t flinch away, didn’t stiffen my body in protective protest.

Why not? Why on earth was that possible? And possible each of the additional five times I’ve had a massage with him? How? What does my mind see as the difference between massage touch and PT touch?

And how is massage touch received by people who don’t struggle with PT touch? Does it really just dissolve them into a goopy mass of pleasure sensation? What must that be like?

*

One morning in PT, Jeremy took hold of my arm. I’d been telling him about the pain I’m having in my bicep and along the back upper ridge of my shoulder. I’d been doing some stretches before heading over to his table. I was feeling pretty good, relaxed, happy to see improvement in some of the tougher exercises, pleased to have graduated to muscle-building work.

Jeremy took hold of my arm and tried to stretch it out. My resistance was instant and intense. “It’s me,” he said, patting my bicep gently. “Me, your old friend. Relax. Relax.”

I’m all one step forward, a dozen and a half back. So tense, I could feel my bicep flexing against him. And for the rest of the session, I felt my body resisting him, refusing to go limp again and again and again.

Jeremy – aside from the fact that he’s a little too big and loud, a little too — as I’ve said — BMOC jock dude-bro – could easily be a massage therapist. When he has massaged my shoulder, it’s felt as good as my Jamaican massages. And yet I stay wound tight. And the same is true with all of my therapists – Yu-Lan still exclaims in wonder on those rare occasions when she feels my arm go limp.

I want to say that it’s my body steeling itself against pain. Moving in the ways the therapists try to move me usually means pain. PT these days usually means pain. Isn’t it only natural that I’d flinch away from that? But I know better. I don’t love pain, but fear of it isn’t chief among the reasons for my response to PT touch.

So what do I do with any of this? It’s interesting to realize that I perceive different types of intimate touch so very differently. And it’s interesting to realize that, because no everyone has a history like my history, there are people in the world who don’t have a problem with intimate touch at all. And … what? What’s next? Where do I go with this?

Yes, obviously, to a therapist’s office, but I want something more, something this minute. Yes, a magic bullet that will allow me to relax in PT … but also just a clear conclusion to this mental meandering.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe just recognizing this different perception is enough for now. Maybe I need to sit with it a while before I can start to process it. Maybe.

I am coming to the end of what I hope is just my first set of PT visits for my shoulder. My arm is starting to feel better. I have some of my range of motion back. I am no longer sleeping sitting up. I have moved from the tiny one-pound weight to the less-tiny two-pounder. Progress! But I’m not ready to be finished yet. My arm has a long way to go, and so does my thought process. The things I’ve learned about myself in PT have begun to get deeper. Not sure this is the argument to use with my insurance to get a second round of PT approved!

I’m glad to feel my body getting stronger, working back toward health. I have a very long way to go, but it feels good. For the first time in years, I am out and about without a cane, and I’ no longer wearing my arm in a sling. I’d forgotten how it felt to be so free. It’s scary but also excellent. Just like all the things Yu-Lan and Jeremy are teaching me about my response to touch and my ability to trust. A VERY long way to go. Glad to be on the way.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

The Most Important Thing

I decided to try another erasure poem taken from a news article, see if this is really a thing I’m going to spend a month doing. After listening to stories from several angles on my morning news, I chose as my source text a Times interview with Mr. Facebook.

The Most Important Thing
(An erasure of a Mark Zuckerberg interview in response to the Cambridge Analytica data breach.)

Facebook embroiled, prone to abuse.
Privacy issues, important responsibilities.
At their most basic level,
everything that happened
was more important, the most important.
There were certainly other things.
Going forward, are there others out there?
A full investigation,
a large amount of information,
policies, suspicious activity
capacity to make sure.
It’s really important.
You may have forgotten you’ve connected.
We’re going to tell,
we’re going to be conservative,
we’ll build.
We’re going to have to grow.
The important thing –
it’s a high-touch process.
The specific point, I guess technically
would be the point, a situation
a real person-to-person relationship,
sensitive, sexual, clear.
The first thing is community.
There’s no wrongdoing here.
That’s the basic driver –
access, responsibility, community.
It’s not good.
It’s a clear signal.
This is a major trust issue.
This is an incredibly important point –
we feel a responsibility.
You’re the first I’m telling.
I feel a lot better now.
This is a massive focus, really important.
We want to unify.
This is a really important question, really important.
Our mission
is to build community in the world.
Really important.
We’re doing something unprecedented,
building community all over the world,
connect across boundaries, new challenges.
We have a real responsibility, seriously.
I’ve made all kinds of mistakes.

This was an interesting exercise. When I started reading the interview, I thought I’d make a fairly short poem because every clip I’d heard from the interview seemed fairly empty and devoid of poem fodder. But as I kept reading, I realized that was kind of the point: Zuckerberg talks and talks, his responses performative rather than substantive. Yes, of course that’s an “of course,” but it surprised me how little he tried to paint something pretty over that.

And then there’s how not accepting of blame or responsibility his answers are, how he spends so much time making sure to tell us how revolutionary and innovative and community-centered his work is, blah, blah, blah.

This is surely another “of course!” I’ve never read so carefully through anything Zuckerberg has said, so I find myself surprised. This poetic form forces me to read the words differently as I search for the phrases that need pulling out.

There was a lot here. The repetitions, the self-promotions, the clear effort to distance himself from anything that could look like guilt. Made for a much longer poem. And I’m sure MZ wouldn’t be happy with the choices I’ve made here, with my final line maybe especially.

I may have to try this a time or two again before April rolls around.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

Finders Keepers

I’ve been thinking about thinking about what form I’m going to write in April, what I’ll spend my month trying and trying to learn and grow comfortable with. I’ve been reading through plenty of lists of poetic forms, looking for one that would feel like the right challenge, not feeling inspired, not feeling pulled in any one direction.

Until today. I might just be onto an idea. In last year’s Girls Write Now poetry workshop, we worked on erasure poems. I’d never written one before, hadn’t heard of the form until that day. It took me a few tries to really process the “how” of it. And today I thought it might be interesting to spend a little more time with the form. And by “little,” I mean the 30 fast-approaching days of April.

An erasure poem is a kind of “found” poem. You start with an existing text and pull out words and phrases — “erasing” the parts you don’t want to use — to create your poem. Robert Lee Brewer at Writers Digest gives a good description of both erasure and blackout poems, and also makes important points about plagiarism and crediting the author of your source text. And Robin Coste Lewis’ Self-Portrait as the Bootblack in Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temps is a wonderful example. Would that I could create something so fine.

And then I thought I should have a theme of some kind. I immediately thought of taking news articles and finding poems in them. There is so much going on that I can’t find words to talk about because it’s so ugly, so painful, so demoralizing, so devastating. Maybe taking someone else’s words and finding my voice in theirs will be a way for me to start talking about some of those things.

Naturally, it turns out that this isn’t an original thought. The New Republic published a piece last October about the rise in erasure poetry that’s been inspired by Trump’s election. The piece includes a link to some stunning erasure poems from Trump’s speeches.

So. Not original. I still like the idea, and I think I will keep liking it enough to have at it come April.

I gave it a try today. I read a piece in The New York Times about Puerto Rican survivors of Hurricane Maria, and used that as my source text. I like Lewis’ style of attribution, so I adopted and adapted it:

Addressing the Crisis
(An erasure of Daiza Aponte Torres’ “The Refugees in New York’s Hotel Rooms“)

My life upside down
my two daughters,
the island
my home destroyed.
Hundreds of families.
We’re barely surviving.
Stranded
after the storm.
Not enough,
discriminated against.
Confined.
Limited.
Denied.
We are traumatized.
No one will know
the disaster continues
every day.

Yes, I think I’ve found my 30/30 challenge. Have you found yours? What will you be working on next month? Want to join me for some erasure poems?

 


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

Baking with What You Have

I am still struggling with internet connectivity in my home, which is making all things difficult, and really getting on my nerves. Verizon is due to visit me again tomorrow, so I’m going to pretend at optimism that the problem will be resolved. In the mean time, I’m going to take advantage of this rare moment of weekend net connection and post one of the essays I wrote in January.


This morning I made cornbread. Cornbread is one of my staple comfort foods. It’s quick and easy to make, it reminds me of my childhood, and it connects me to my mother and grandmothers.

And that’s part of why I made it. The other reason is that I wanted to bake something in my new kitchen, wanted to fill my new apartment with the warm scent of something in the oven.

I am months and months — and surely more months still — away from settling into this apartment. I’ve begun the slow process of unpacking, have grown familiar with my new commute, have been reminded of some of the awkward truths of living in an apartment building. One o the things that helps make this space full of boxes and disarray feel more like home, however, is using the kitchen, cooking for myself instead of buying take-out or getting by on cashews and cheese. I haven’t found my grocery store yet, but a handful of ingredients made the move with me, and so … cornbread.

 

Moving house forces me to look at all the things I own — as they’re going into boxes or as they come out. It forces me to see the things I’ve chosen to hold onto … and pushes me to ask why. I haven’t read more than a couple of pages of Marie Kondo’s book, but looking at my things as I begin unpacking has made me think I need to read that, that it will resonate with me and might help me find (finally) the way to pare down my possessions. This close look at my things has been eye-opening.

It’s no surprise for me to see how sentimental I am — the bits and pieces of ephemera I’ve carried with me for years that I just can’t seem to say goodbye to — but it’s a little maddening to see what my sentimentality costs me in time and energy and storage space.

Unsurprisingly, this sentimental keeping of things doesn’t only apply to the tangible objects in my rooms. Two days ago, it was The Morphine Man’s birthday. And of course I was aware of it, of course I spent time thinking about him. How much storage space in y head and heart is he taking up? And for why? Even if there is some future version of the world in which he and I are somehow back together, it won’t win me back all the time and tears I’ve spent on him in these intervening months, decades …

How do I declutter on all fronts? I want to own less stuff and hold onto less baggage. This move is a good time to start on the one. How do I start on the other?

 

The cornbread was good. I mean, of course it was. Cornbread is pretty much always good. But it was also clearly the first step on a curve. It’s the first thing I’ve made in this new oven, so there are still things to learn. With my last oven, it took me a while to learn the exact difference between the temperature in the oven and the setting on the dial: +50°. Things began to run smoothly after I bought an over thermometer. This new oven has its own secrets to reveal. One batch of cornbread isn’t going to tell me everything I need to know.

Patience. In all things. Sure. Easy to say.

Next up is maybe mac and cheese. Or maybe my molasses spice cookies. I’ve only ever made them successfully in my mother’s oven. My old oven was always and always just too hot for that dough. It will be interesting to see how this new oven does.

Patience. I rarely have much for myself, even as I am notorious for having oceans of it for others. Definitely need to draw some of that inward and give myself a break.

I’ll clear out some of my things as I empty these boxes. I’ll make room on my shelves and in my closets. Slowly. And I’ll clear out thoughts of AC, The Morphine Man, other people and things from the past that aren’t serving me today. Slowly. Slowly. Slowly.

And, as I make room, as I clear away, there will be space for new things. Maybe I’ll finally learn to make tuiles and florentines, use my beautiful new counter tops to properly roll out biscuit or cooking dough. Maybe I’ll finally open my heart, air it out, be ready.


GriotGrind Next Wave logoIn 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Airing my dirty laundry …

At the end of December, I moved house. Goodbye to the many-splendored joys of living in Crown Heights, and hello to … Sunset Park! I’ve moved to south Brooklyn, to a neighborhood with which I already have a love relationship, having worked here happily for a dozen years. Sunset Park is a wonderful community. And my apartment is beautiful. And I have unobstructed views from my windows to let in sunlight and starshine and all of that.

BUT

My heart remains … if not fully broken, then still badly bruised. I realized just before Christmas that my response to having to leave my Crown Heights home was translated in my body to the response I have after a break up. I was grieving a lost love, licking my wounds, crying myself a river. Leaving Crown Heights was breaking my heart.

I wish I’d figured that out sooner. My move would have been far less difficult. All the while I was pining, I wasn’t doing any packing. So I didn’t start getting shit into boxes until three days before the move. Seriously. Three days. To pack a large apartment with a 10-year accumulation of mess.

Predictably, I failed. And failed on a luminously-technicolor scale. The movers arrived on the morning of the 30th, and maybe a hair more than half my house was ready to go. When that happens, what it means is that the movers pack your stuff. When that happens, what it means is that your things go into giant boxes any which way, and there’s no handy labeling of anything so you end up not knowing where things are.

It also means I let the truck head for the new place knowing that I hadn’t packed much of the kitchen or finished the closets in my bedroom or front hall. And that was stupid, but I just couldn’t bear to take any more time getting things in the truck, couldn’t bear to have strangers—men—pack my clothes, my underwear and bras. Couldn’t bear to have them handling my world of purses and scarves, my jewelry.

When that happens, it means you spend the better part of the next two days schlepping back to your old apartment to pack the things you left behind and cart those things in (expensive) cabs to your new apartment.

Sigh.

This was the worst move of my life. No question.

There’s one way this move could have gone more smoothly. Many friends offered to help me pack. They understood that I didn’t have much time between signing my lease and move-in day, and some of them knew I have a shoulder injury that would make packing difficult. So they stepped up.

I turned them all down.

I had so many reasons. I wanted to be able to sort through everything, do some enormous culling of my possessions so I could move with less stuff. I wanted to have the boxes organized and carefully labeled. Also, and most importantly, I totally underestimated the amount of stuff I own … which happens when you’re not paying full attention because you’re busy grieving your lost love. When everything’s put away, it doesn’t look like all that much. Start pulling things out of cabinets and cubbies … and you suddenly have ten fucking years’ worth of accumulate to somehow cram into far too few boxes.

But all of this—while also true—is just the story I told myself about why I couldn’t accept help. The real story is uglier, sadder.

*

I recently contributed an essay to Wendy Angulo’s “Lifting the Burden of Shame” project. Very specifically, I wrote about the shame I was taught to feel about being Black. So much of that essay seemed to fall out of my pen. But there was also the part that snuck up on me and smacked me upside the head … with a sledgehammer.

I thought I was aware of the ways and places shame manifested in my life. The ways and places it still manifests in my life. Writing that essay showed me how wrong I was, how sneaky and insidious shame is. That sounds obvious, but it surprised me all the same.

Writing that essay and then getting myself moved also made me think of Cisneros’ “A Smart Cookie” in The House on Mango Street, of Esperanza’s mother stirring oatmeal at the stove, angry, saying, “Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down.” So far down. So firmly down. So adeptly down that you don’t notice the damage until someone or something slaps you hard enough to wake you up, force you to see the hole you’ve allowed yourself to dig, the dirt and leaves you’re covering yourself with.

 

Yeah. What does this have to do with the hell of my moving? Everything. Every last thing. I couldn’t accept anyone’s offer of help because of shame, because I didn’t want any of those people—my friends—to see me.

People think they know me. I’m a middle-aged Black woman with a fair amount of education, a sense of humor, some creative skills. But I’m like Dorian Gray and his creepy-ass portrait, looking good on the outside … but behind the scenes I’m all chaos and disaster, oozing noxious slime. Behind the scenes is the real me, and the real me is a mess.

To let people come help me pack would have meant letting them see the slovenly way I keep house, letting them see that I am a borderline hoarder, letting them see how not at all together I actually am. It was easier to have the worst move of my life, to spend hundreds of dollars I couldn’t afford on cabs than to expose my shamefully disorganized, dirty, disgusting underbelly to people who like and respect me.

*

Was my shame-induced hiding successful? Of course not. Yes, the movers got to see me, but they were strangers I’d never see again, so I could manage the mortification their judgment caused. No. One of my friends came on moving day morning, and instead of helping oversee the move-in end of things, she wound up spending hours—HOURS—packing, seeing my mess, dealing with dirt and trash.

My heart ached the whole time. How was our friendship supposed to survive everything she had to see?

I tried talking to my mom about it the next day when she asked why I hadn’t invited help. She told me, unsurprisingly, that I was being overly hard on myself, that everyone has dirt and dust behind their bookcases, that no one’s house looks good when you start stripping away the decorative distractions. And I love her for that … but I don’t think she understood the true state of my apartment.

This terror of having anyone see my filthy house, it’s more than just shame. It feels connected to Impostor Syndrome. I present as someone who has her shit more or less together, and letting people see how badly I keep house lays bare that lie, makes plain just how much I don’t have together, opens the door to questions about what else in my life is in utter disarray, what else in my life I’m lying about.

 

Welp. My ugly secret is exposed. As he wheeled my bed down the hall to my new bedroom, the mover looked at me and nodded. “This is a nice apartment,” he said. I could imagine the rest of his thought: “And you’re going to fill it with crap and keep it as badly as you did the old one, aren’t you?”

*

So I’m in my new apartment, in my new neighborhood. I finally finished the move last weekend, bringing the final things from the old place, and I have begun to settle in—my kitchen is unpacked, I’ve broken down a bunch of boxes, my cats no longer spend hours in hiding. It’ll be a long time before I begin to feel settled. How long will it be before I begin to root out and deal with my shame? Unpacking is slow and exhausting. Eradicating shame is work. But it’s clearly time I got down to it.