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.

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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.

All I Want for TKD …

It’s the first frigid days of 2018. A new year. Where I’m sitting, the “real feel” temperature is -30. Yes, if I step outside, it will feel like 30 degrees below zero. There is so much wrong with that, I don’t have time or energy to describe it. But … where I’m sitting, it’s beautiful, and it’s quiet and calm, and I have a gorgeous space to myself for a few days of writing and dreaming and staring at the snowy landscape and organizing my brain.

This is a gift I’ve bought myself, these four days of contemplation and work. The drive up with my friends yesterday was lovely. The first moments of walking into this glorious space and seeing just how fabulous it is was lovely. Waking up to see sunlight creeping over the mountains out my window was lovely. Remembering that the only things I have to do are the things that I want to do was best of all.

These few days are the third DIY writing retreat I’ve made. Each retreat has been very different, and each has been just what I needed. In some version of a perfect world, all of my time would be like this. But I don’t live in a perfect world, so I have to create my moments of perfection when and where I can.

It’s Three Kings Day, the day Melchior, Balthsar, and Gaspar presented their gifts to Mary’s new baby. What gifts would I have of the Magi this year? Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are nice, but my needs run a little different from those of the newly-born Christ child.

  1. Energy. I have a lot of plans for myself this year. If I have any hope of getting through even half of them, I’m going to need lots of energy. Lots of it.

These plans I have for myself run in all kinds of directions. When I set my new-year intentions before my birthday (the official start of the new year for me is my birthday, so January is a time for me to review first quarter success and re-up for the rest of the year), the primary focus of all my goals was my health. I’ve had a few years of non-stop crap, and I’m more than tired of it. So I started working on the most pressing items and focusing on maintaining the gains I’d already made. Dealing with the healthcare system and with healthcare providers exhausts the mess out of me, however. That’s one place the need for energy comes in. Pushing back against a system that wants to blame all my ills on my weight, insisting that providers actually listen to the things I tell them are happening with my body, fighting with my insurance company so that care I need is paid for … it’s a job of work.

I need physical energy, too, however. I have some clear and intensive goals around strength training and getting my body ready for the trip I’m planning in the fall. I need to be stronger, need to be a little less fearful of injury and pain, need to have a little more trust in my physical capacity. So, speaking of jobs of work … yeah.

And there are some things that need to be done, that only I can do, that I have no desire to do. I need to find the will to power through them, day after day after day. If I can’t do them, most of the rest of my plans for the year will have to be set aside, and I’m not here for that possibility, so I have to step up and get those things done.

  1. Pigheadedness. If you know me, you know I can be annoyingly stubborn sometimes. That’s true enough as far as it goes. But I struggle with not being stubborn enough to hold onto things that are for myself, things that feel selfish because they are just about me. I let plans for myself fall by the wayside all the time. I regret those falls later, but that regret doesn’t bring opportunity back. So I want some selfish stubbornness, I want the ability to keep my needs as my primary focus and direction this year. That doesn’t mean I want to ignore other people and their needs. It means I want to stop putting other people and their needs ahead of myself every time. I want to be pigheaded in my belief that I am worth that focus, that my needs are important and deserve my time and attention.
  2. Confidence. This one may be the most important one of all, the one that gives me the ability to have the other two.

I struggle with Impostor Syndrome on the regular. There are times when La Impostora is my constant companion. She is far too good at keeping me down, keeping me back, keeping me in a box of self-doubt. And I’m sick unto death of her power over me.

I wanted to say that the third gift should be “Wakandan pride.” And maybe that’s still right. Wakandans know they are the shit. I have never had that fierce a sense of myself and my value … and I want some of that. I’m not getting any younger. What am I waiting for? Mother Toni said it right in Beloved. I am my best thing. Me. I am. And I need to see that and know it and believe it and live it. And I need to start right this instant.

*

And so, Gaspar, Melchior, Balthasar. There are my wishes, my gift requests for this Three Kings Day: energy, pigheadedness, confidence. Work your magic, magi. Come through.

Un Rêve Parisien

In the wee small hours of Monday morning, I dreamed this wonderful, crazy dream:

I was in Paris, and I was with Lisa Ko. We were walking along the Seine, and decided to scale a building — one we had apparently scaled once before, back when I was in my 20s. We wanted to get to someplace on the top floor, no idea why we didn’t just go inside and up the stairs. We climbed the façade, then had to shimmy along a ridiculously narrow ledge the full length of the building. We reached the uppermost corner and had to go up and around it. There were decorative touches to the architecture that made crossing it hard — weird bits poking out that should have made good foot and handholds, except they were made of wood instead of stone, and they were frighteningly rickety. Lisa was behind me, giving me encouragement, but I was terrified. I made it about halfway then froze because the next several decorations moved when I tested them, and I knew they wouldn’t support me. Lisa was really good at giving me a pep talk, but I was still convinced I was going to fall. Finally, I decided to just go for it, that if the decorations had withstood big storms, surely they’d withstand me. [Writing this, it’s so clear how much sense that doesn’t make! My logic was that the storms had to have had at least 100 mph winds … first, I doubt Paris has had a single storm like that, let alone many … and, too, I weigh a good deal more than a hundred pounds, so how would any of those storms have been relevant?] I told Lisa that, if I died, I wanted her to “tell everyone I love them,” and then I started up the last bit, which turned out to be quite simple: I swung my leg up over the top of the corner — bypassing the scary bits entirely — and pulled myself over to slide down the smooth back side onto a much wider ledge. Lisa came over easily — despite the fact that she was wearing six-inch metallic gold platform heels! — and together we came down from the ledge and directly into someone’s apartment. Lisa looked a little sheepish and said, “We should probably get some writing done,” and I agreed. But first, she said, we should get some food. She led the way through the beautiful apartment to the great room. there were people at the dining table — a young woman and a teen-aged boy — and an elderly and middle-aged woman in the kitchen. The middle-aged woman was dishing up food while the older woman watched. Lisa went up and took a seat at the breakfast bar, and the woman put a plate in front of her. “Jay’s mother always feeds everyone,” Lisa explained, and that was when I realized the woman was Jay-Z’s m other. She put a serving of deep, green, delicious-looking cucumber soup into a tall plastic cup and set it beside Lisa’s plate then started on my plate. The older woman leaned over to read the side of the cup, which said: “Happy birthday, Bitch,” then looked at Jay-Z’s mom and asked, “Are you the bitch?” And Jay-Z’s mom nodded and said, “That’s right.”

And then I woke up.

I find this dream supercalifragilisticexpialidociously fabulous for a few reasons:

  1. I love that I was in Paris. I haven’t been in many years, so it was a lovely gift from my subconscious to suddenly be on the streets (and the façades!) of that city.
  2. I love that I was traveling with Lisa of all people. It’s true that we’ve been on a trip together once before and are planning a trip for early 2018, but nothing so grand as spontaneous wall-climbing in Paris!
  3. I love my subconscious’ decision to make Jay-Z’s mother so generous and welcoming. Other than the fact that she’s Jay-Z’s mom, I don’t know a single thing about Jay-Z’s mom — not even her name — so her appearance in my dream is both wonderful and hilarious.
  4. I love Lisa’s six-inch heels and here ability to scale that wall while wearing them. Lisa is fabulously talented, but I had no idea how for and in which directions her talents would manifest!
  5. I also love how patient and supportive she was when I was afraid to start the last piece of the climb. I generally tend not to tell people when I’m afraid of something, and don’t often ask for or admit the need for help (yes, that’s a problem, and it’s on the “Work on This!” list). So that moment in the dream was a nice illustration of what it can be like to let your friends step in and be your friends and help or encourage or support you when you need it.
  6. I love that, even in the dream world, Lisa – who is one of my writing accountability buddies – was still thinking about writing, and reminding me that I should be doing more of it!
  7. I love that the food that made the deepest impression on me was the cucumber soup. It was so green and pretty, and I just knew it would be cool and clear and tart and yummy.

One of the things I love the most is that I tried to encourage myself to remember this dream. Someone recently told me that if, as you’re falling asleep, you tell yourself to remember your dreams, you have a better chance of remembering. I don’t know why that would ever be true, but why not, right? So I said that to myself a few times as I was drifting off … and here I am, recounting this wacky dream. Obviously, I’ll be trying that again!

The other thing I love most is that being able to remember the dream also means being able to see all the places where my conscious self steps in to mess with whatever’s happening in the dream. Because I’m a lucid dreamer.

I’ve written a few times about my dreams and specifically about lucid dreaming. I got interesting in studying lucid dreaming … but then I got busy and tired and captivated by something else. So I didn’t do much study. I’ve learned the tiniest sliver of a bit about lucid dreaming. But this Paris dream makes me want to pick up the research where I left off.

In one of my older posts about lucid dreaming, I mentioned that it was a long time before I knew there was a name other than “dreaming” to describe what I experienced because I thought that was the way everyone dreamed, thought everyone dreamed and was aware that they were dreaming. It never occurred to me that there was anything special about it. Once I learned that it wasn’t so common, I won’t lie: it started to seem a little shinier, a little more special.

Because I’m aware that I’m dreaming, my conscious mind can alter things about the dream or pause and think (or, as is often the case, laugh) about particularly odd things I see and do in the dream. In the Paris dream, my consciousness stepped in a couple of times. First, I gave myself a play-by-play as Lisa and I climbed the building, wondering what the hell I thought I was doing climbing some building in a dress and pumps. I don’t have a great history with climbing things. I fell from a rock wall in southern Portugal. I got stuck on a different rock wall in Jamaica, hanging on for dear life above from unfriendly-looking surf, terrified to move forward or back. I’m not a climber, not really, so what did I imagine myself to be doing scaling that façade with Lisa?

The second consciousness intervention was during the scary part of the climb, the part where I convinced myself to take a chance because, if those weird and rickety wooden decorations could withstand 100-mile-per-hour winds, they could certainly support me and my not make of wind self. That was clearly my conscious mind on drugs, desperate to get me over that wall, even if the “how” of it made no sense.

The final moment of consciousness came when Lisa and I found ourselves in Jay-Z’s mom’s apartment. I laughed as I came down from the wall and saw that I was in a room. I have had so many dreams in which I wind up in strangers’ homes uninvited. And quite often I wind up in the kitchen. In one, I broke into someone’s house just so I could cook. In that dream, I was busy making a big pot of spaghetti sauce. Clearly, there’s something that needs interpreting about me and kitchens, me and breaking and entering, me and strangers’ houses …

* * *

Generally speaking, my conscious self only comments on what she’s watching dream-me do. There have been a few times when I’ve changed the course of the dream action. I usually only do that when things aren’t looking good for dream-me. I remember a dream in which I was being chased – when I think about that dream, I always say I was being chased by a monster, but as I type this, I’m remembering that I was actually being chased by the first wife of my most awful ex (talk about things to unpack!!). She was armed, I think with a knife, and wanted my blood. I was running through a wooded area and found myself face to face with a wall. There was no way around or over it (I guess I wasn’t aware at that time of my fabulous wall-scaling skills). I could hear her closing in … and then I just moved myself to safety on the other side. I didn’t want to see where that story was headed. I literally narrated myself beyond the problem: “Well, somehow I got over it,” conscious-me said in the dream as dream-me reoriented herself on the safe side of the wall and made her getaway. I do love the Deus-ex-machina-ness of that.

In a comment conversation on one of my other lucid dreaming posts, someone talked about being able to bring other people into her dreams and pointed out that I could use my ability to control the dreams to give myself a little Jamaica vacation whenever I wanted one. I haven’t tried either of these things, but now I’m inspired anew by the pleasure I felt at seeing Paris – the Paris I remember from living there decades ago, the Paris I know does and doesn’t still exist. I was happy, at home.

I’m interested in dream interpretation – because of course I want all this wacky fabulousness to also mean something – but I’m okay with the mystery of that. For now, I want to play with this blurred and blurring line between my conscious and unconscious mind, learning what kind of fun I can have poking into my dream world.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I decided to dedicate my NaNoWriMo writing to writing essays, and I’ve been catching up! Whether I reach the goal or not, I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

The Queen of Oversharing

I like describing myself as the Queen of Oversharing. This naming is kind of a lie. I tell a lot of stuff about myself … but not really. When we were crashing and burning for the final time, one of the things The Morphine Man accused me of was talking too much and saying nothing. He said I told a million stories about myself, but they were all surface, I never let people get close to my real self. This is pretty true … but it’s also kind of a lie.

I do tell a lot of stories about myself—practically this whole blog is stories about myself. A lot of my stories are told for entertainment value. My stories about traveling, about my various experiences with hitchhiking, about bad boyfriends (The Morphine Man included, of course), about growing up in a very particular kind of small, insular town—these are the kind of stories that fall into this category. They’re almost like long-form jokes, told to amuse the listener, show you how funny, or silly, or charmingly naïve, or comically vain … or whatever I can be.

Some of my stories are “Learn from my wacky mistakes!” stories, instructive but comical at the same time. When I was teaching, there were a lot of stories about that, and I still tell some of those. I loved teaching, and I learned so much from my students, and so many of my experiences in the classroom make for good stories. Those are generally more heartwarming or educational than comical, but there’s plenty to laugh about in those anecdotes, too.

So The Morphine Man wasn’t wrong. I absolutely do tell a lot of stories. I talk a LOT. And most of that telling doesn’t reveal the deepest, darkest corners of my soul, but I would argue a) that no one wants to have to look at the cluttered back rooms of my soul all the damn time, b) that there’s more to seeing and understanding who a person is than watching them take rib-spreaders to their own chests and dump their heart on the table for you every time they open their mouths, and c) if you actually listen to the stories I choose to tell about myself—even the foolish ones—there’s a lot you can see about who I am and what’s important to me and how I tick.

Do I also keep people at arm’s length? Yes. A lot of the time I do. I’ve had a lot of experience with people showing e how totally they couldn’t be trusted with my confidence, with not feeling safe showing much more than my surface. So I got good at learning to look as if I was sharing while keeping my soft underbelly well protected. So The Morphine Man was right on that score as well. I don’t think this skill, this form of protection, is particularly unusual. Don’t we all hold our vulnerabilities close to our chests? With luck, we meet people we begin to feel close enough to, begin to trust enough that we stare more of the deep-dark-corners stuff. I am glad that I have a strong circle of these kinds of friends now. I wish I’d had them in the past, but the storytelling helped me muddle through.

Which was, in the end, the problem with and for The Morphine Man, wasn’t it? He clearly hadn’t become one of those people for me. Or, he had, during our first go-round … but he proved unworthy, using some of the painful things he learned about me to inflict more pain. So during our last go-round, I withheld myself a little more adeptly, waiting to see if I would feel safe with him again.

But this blog is one place where I truly am Queen of Oversharing. I tell things here that I never say to anyone. Those are the other stories I tell, the “full-disclosure” stories where I share some close-to-the-bone stuff.

Those are the stories I write and, just before I post them, I send my family a heads-up email, cluing them in to this information about me that they didn’t know so they can hear it before I make it insanely public.

So what the hell is that? Why do I feel entirely comfortable telling ugly, painful stories about myself online when I’ve never told my family or closest friends those stories? I mean, sure, there’s the anonymity aspect of “telling it to the internet.” No one is sitting across a table watching and listening. You don’t have to see or hear anyone’s response in real time. You create distance simply by choosing to write rather than tell.

All of that makes sense to me. But, like the things I said at the start of this essay, it’s kind of a lie, isn’t it? It isn’t as though I’m writing anonymously online. My friends and family know where to find me and some of them regularly read what I post. That’s precisely why I send my family those heads-up emails before I publish the worst of my mess. I want them to hear it from me directly rather than stumble across it on FB or during their occasional scan of my blog.

But, if I want them to hear these stories directly from me, why haven’t I told them any of these things directly? Why do I only choose to tell them because I have suddenly decided to share the stories with the world?

Last week I wrote a post about my current experience with apartment hunting. It quickly ballooned into a post about a lot of other things—my infertility, the mass of debt I struggle under, racism, fear of homelessness. A jumbled mix of ways I clearly don’t have my shit together. It was hard to post that because I like looking like a person who most definitely has her shit together. I know that under the surface and behind closed doors, I am an entire mess, but I don’t like showing that off. But that house hunting post pulled back the curtain on my well-crafted façade.

It’s a weird set-up to have created: now, people I don’t know well or at all can do the most basic level of search and learn all kinds of unkempt, ugly things about me. If these were the things I kelp close to my vest in the past, does my sharing them here mean I’m no longer doing that … or that this is just another form of TMI performance and I have an even deeper, darker set of personal truths that I’m holding onto?

Of course, the answer to both questions is yes. And I also suspect I’ll eventually get around to writing those stories here.

I already know there are things I am both itching to write about and desperate to keep buried. These are things I hide because they make me look bad. But hiding them also holds me back, and that’s frustrating.

Yeah. So … stay tuned?

__________

I am lucky in that my family have never responded badly to anything I’ve shared  or to the fact of my sharing. Their response is always a reaffirmation of how much they love me. (As I said: lucky.) Sometimes my mother worries about what parts of myself I expose because she doesn’t want anyone to use information against me. And I suppose there are ways info I share could be used against me, but I’m pressed to come up with a likely scenario for that.

I’m wondering how other people navigate this king of sharing/not-sharing line-straddling. Do you just dive in and tell all the things? Do you keep your telling strictly surface? How do your families respond when you go deeper, telling your more private-seeming stories in a public forum?


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I decided to dedicate my NaNoWriMo writing to writing essays, and I’ve been catching up! Whether I reach the goal or not, I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Moving On

After ten too-short years of settling into my beautiful Brooklyn apartment and my equally beautiful Brooklyn neighborhood, I have to leave. My landlords are expanding into the full house, so it’s time for me to go. I’m sad about it. “Sad” doesn’t fully express the sense of loss I already feel, especially knowing that it’s unlikely I’ll get to stay in the neighborhood. Rents have outpaced me, rising considerably in the time I’ve been cozied up at home.

I wanted to call this piece “Paradise Lost” because that’s how I felt when I first got the news from my landlords.

It’s been a good ten years. I’ve done good work at both of my jobs. I became a bread baker. I became a better knitter. I became a vegetarian. I discovered and was embraced by the VONA writing community. I became a blogger, which has affected a sea change in my writing and my life–I’ve written hundreds of poems (poems! me), I’ve started working in comics, I’ve found a channel through which I can funnel my anger productively and satisfyingly. I’ve acquired a pair of new knees … and they aren’t perfect, but they’re better than they were.

A good ten years. I’ve been more happy than unhappy. And it’s true that not all of those things happened because I lived in my pretty Crown Heights apartment, but being comfortable at home didn’t hurt, feeling at ease and having a good relationship with my landlords and neighbors certainly didn’t hurt. Knowing I could take off for weeks at a time and my cats would be well taken care of didn’t hurt.

Okay, enough of that. It’s bringing me down. Not everything has been rosy about living here, right? There are the awkwardly steep steps down to my basement that have been scary and difficult for someone with mobility issues. There’s the occasional leak under my back door when the rain comes down heavily and at just the right angle (though, surprisingly, not a drop came in during the biggest, most aggressive rainfall I’ve seen while living here: Superstorm Sandy). There has been the cavalcade of bugs that have made themselves at home with me: grasshoppers, lightning bugs, ants, slugs, millipedes, and those black-red bugs with the pincer-like mandibles! (Having the yard out my back door has been a dream, but I never imagined how many uninvited guests would wander in from that pretty patch of “wilderness”!)

I have a little time before I need to be out, but I’ve started looking. And as I’ve started looking, I realize that I don’t have much experience with apartment hunting. And that’s a crazy thing to realize because I’ve lived in nine different apartments in the 30 years I’ve been in this city. I have always found apartments really quickly and easily–once, much too quickly, so quickly I didn’t look closely enough to notice all the awfulness until the lease was signed and I was in the middle of it. A few of the apartments I barely had to look for at all, friends were moving out or looking for a roommate, and there I was. The others, maybe I looked at a small handful of places, but I always found what I wanted in no time. I looked at two apartments before seeing and falling in love with my current one. Two.

Two is not going to be my magic number this time around, however. I’ve already seen fourteen places, already been disappointed by the unsuitableness of nearly all of them. I’ve sent “contact me!” messages to dozens of people through at least five different apartment-finding websites, and I’ve wandered neighborhoods I’ve never considered living in–or never considered returning to.

It shouldn’t be as complicated as it’s shaping up to be for me. But homeowners and brokers give me the fisheye on the regular. Because, as steady and stable as I generally am, I also look like an unacceptable risk. 

I have a good job. I have a history of longevity both as an employee and as a tenant. I make a pretty decent salary, a significantly larger salary than the brokers are hoping for when they tell me what I need to make in order to be eligible for apartments in my rent range. I don’t smoke. I have cats, not dogs. I have no children.

But

I have a ton–make that a TON–of thorny, hairy, ugly debt. All that money I borrowed and charged during the try-to-have-a-baby phase is still hanging over my head. Well, not all of it. I’ve paid a chunk back, but the rest is still sky high, blocking the sun with its mountainous bulk. It makes for a lousy credit report and score, makes me look like the last person you want renting in your building.

Add that debt to their surprise at discovering that I’m the woman they’ve been talking and texting with. A big, Black woman with kinky hair is not who they expect to meet. A big, Black woman with kinky hair and crappy credit? Yeah, I instantly become an even less attractive candidate. (No, I don’t think every broker or homeowner I’ve met so far is straight-up racist, but their reactions to me have been such that all of them have failed the test. One of the things I liked about my current landlords when we met was their flying-colors handling of the test. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen two people show less surprise at finding me on their doorstep.)
And all that debt repayment means I’ve saved nothing, so buying is out of the question.

When I wrote about my fear of homelessness, this is where it comes from. No, I’m not two steps away from the street. Hardly. But I’m many steps away from stable, and a lifetime away from comfortable. And all of that mattered before now, but it didn’t matter in the same way. I was paying down my debt and imagined myself having at least another five years or so before I’d have to start thinking about moving (right around the time I thought my landlords’ oldest daughter might be thinking she’d like her own apartment somewhere not too far from home …).

So. Looking. It really does suck. But there is one interesting thing about this process that is maybe good. I have to tell my credit score story over and over. People have a hard time understanding how I can have a good salary and a crap score all at the same time. I didn’t know that was a weirdness, but apparently it is. So I have to say over and over to one stranger and then another that I ran up a crazy pile of debt while trying to have a baby, and now I’m paying it back.

This is interesting to me because this isn’t something I’ve ever been able to say without getting teary. But here I am, looking men I don’t know in the face and telling them this intensely personal and painful thing, saying it as if it ain’t no thang.

I first thought about this Tuesday. I was saying it to the gruff Irishman who was showing me the first nice apartment I’ve seen. He asked the credit score question and I gave my answer. And I thought, “I am saying that so casually, as if it isn’t hard to say, as if saying it in the past hasn’t sunk me into tears. When did I get comfortable with this?”

But I didn’t have time to keep puzzling over that question because something else happened, too. I said my piece, and I saw him change. He hadn’t been in my court before that moment, was clearly ready to move on to whatever his next thing was, was practically tapping his foot as I looked into the closets (so many closets!) and checked out the view (no buildings obstructing any of the windows!). But when I explained my debt situation, he morphed into a different man. He began to counsel me on how to write my application for the apartment, on how to write the accompanying cover letter he thought I should write to help the owner see why they should take a chance on me. He started telling me more about the apartment owners and the kind of tenant they were looking for and urged me to talk up those aspects in my letter.

Because he felt for me, because there I was, childless–this fact already established before I’d come to meet him and see the place–and telling him I’d spent myself into a hole trying to have a kid. And it turned me into an actual human being for him, a person. I don’t know why he wasn’t interested in being helpful to me before that moment. I can speculate, but I really have no idea. But all of that melted away and he turned into the man he probably is most of the time.

I don’t tell this story about myself to turn myself into a human. It never occurred to me that that would be the result (or in any way necessary in this context). It’s the actual answer to the question about my credit, and telling it is easier than making up a story. But now I see that not only has it helped me get past the awfulness of saying it out loud, it also clearly impacts the person who’s listening to me. This shouldn’t surprise me, should it? I haven’t been meeting with brokers who are androids or robots and incapable of experiencing human emotion. Maybe every single one of them has felt differently about me after hearing my story, but this man was the first one who made his change of attitude so dramatically obvious.

That apartment I saw Tuesday was the first one I’ve seen that I really like. Thirteen duds to get to one place with the potential to be fabulous. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty and large and has great closets and great windows and a doorman (who, apparently, was an engineer in Georgia before he came to this country decades ago) and laundry on-site … It’s nice. I’ll have to jump through a series of hoops to apply for it, but the broker, let’s call him Patrick, has talked me through each of them.

It’s a relief to finally see an apartment I can imagine living in. True, I haven’t been looking long, but really everything in my price range has been totally unacceptable. All have been less than half the size of my current place, one had roaches in the medicine cabinet! (Always check the medicine cabinet!) I haven’t seen roaches in so long, I wasn’t prepared and did a terrible job of hiding my startle response. The broker looked over my shoulder to see what I was seeing and shook his head, “Should I just show you out now?” he asked. I nodded. I mean, there was no way I was ever going to be able to live in the tea-cup-sized house, but then to have to share it with roaches? No.

Tomorrow I’ll see a rent-stabilized place that looks even nicer than the one I saw yesterday. Big, eat-in kitchen, better transportation, across the street from a beautiful park. It’s a little more than I’d wanted to spend, but if it’s as nice as it looks online, it’ll be worth it. And there’s another on deck that has potential, too. I want to move before the end of the year. Seeing a lot of perfectly unsuitable apartments was beginning to make that seem like the height of Pollyanna-ish fantasy. Now I have some hope again.

There’s another thing I realize I’ll have to deal with if one of those three apartments becomes my new home. And I hadn’t thought about this until I stepped off the bus on Tuesday and started walking to the apartment. I was in a part of Brooklyn I haven’t spent much time in. The adult ed program I ran years ago offered English language classes in a senior housing building there–I passed the building on my way to meet Patrick–but it’s not a neighborhood where I’d normally find myself. To be as plain as possible: it’s a very (VERY) white neighborhood. Super white.

And you know, I like white folks well enough. Some. And yes, some of my best friends are white and everything.

But I haven’t had to live in a white neighborhood in ten years. Crown Heights is gentrifying at the speed of light, but it’s still full of Black folks. And I hadn’t thought about the fact that leaving the neighborhood might also mean leaving the pleasure of being surrounded by people who look like me. The pleasure of riding home at night on what I like to call the Black World bus.

I’ve lived in white neighborhoods before. I grew up in white towns. I’ve lived in Park Slope and Cobble Hill. This is a thing I know I can do. But the fact that I’ve already done it is always why I know it will be hard, especially after so many years in Crown Heights. Especially since we’ve entered the age of white folks putting Black folks’ lives in danger by calling the cops for nothing at all.

I lived in Cobble Hill before moving to Crown Heights. If you don’t know Brooklyn neighborhoods, just know that Cobble Hill is a ridiculously over-priced neighborhood full of chi-chi restaurants and tiny boutiques that have three items on display, each costing as much as your rent. (This is a mild exaggeration. Mild.) I lived there for seven years. And for the whole of that seven years, I got to watch my neighbors see me approaching or realize I was walking behind them … and clutch their bags more tightly or pull their children closer, or stare at me with suspicion and fear. It was, to say the least, fucking exhausting.

I think of all the ways I’ve had to adapt to white neighborhoods, change my appearance or behavior on the street just so the people around me aren’t frightened by seeing me. I don’t walk with a scowl on, or with my head down. God forbid I should look angry or like someone trying to avoid eye contact so you can’t identify me after I mug you. And I don’t make eye contact because then I look defiant or angry or confrontational or like I’m sizing you up to decide if I’m going to mug you. I don’t walk closely behind people, I make myself give a half smile and a nod or say hi or something to show how open and personable I am. I make myself not have an explosive reaction when people assume I’m someone’s maid or nanny simply because that’s the only role they’re willing to ascribe to a Black woman walking around in their community.

Does all of this sound ridiculous to you? It should … except that it’s totally necessary in certain neighborhoods. After I moved to Crown Heights, I was back in my old neighborhood and saw one of my former neighbors. She was about a block away from me. I waved at her, and she looked distressed. I waved again. Her look stayed distressed. As I got closer to her, I spoke, greeting her by name. When she realized I knew her name, she allowed herself to see me–not to just look at the person approaching her but to see me–and realized that she recognized me. “I guess you didn’t see me waving,” I said. I mean, I figure she had definitely seen me, but I also knew there were times when I walked around so in my head I didn’t see the people right in front of me. Also, I was giving her an out because I didn’t feel like being bothered with anything more serious. But she didn’t take the out I’d offered. Instead, she told me the truth, her very odd and telling truth: “I saw you,” she said. “I didn’t know how to read that hand gesture.”

She. didn’t. know. how. to. read. my. hand. gesture. The mysterious and frightening wave. This is how annoying and wearing it can be to be a Black person on the street with white people. Do I really want to move back to that? Do I really want to have to deal with that nonsense morning, noon, and night?

Sigh.

 

(Yeah. This is what happens when I don’t censor or carefully edit, when I just say all the stuff, even when more than half of it belongs in another essay and some of it really just belongs in my head!)

What I want to say is that I’m scared. I have gotten so comfortable that this change looms so much larger than it should, and I’m scared. Whatever happens, it will be fine. I’ll go out tomorrow and see these two apartments. And I’ll find and hold onto my optimism and my belief that I really am a good risk despite my debt and my Black skin and my nappy hair. And I won’t be living in my so-comfortable-it-seems-made-for-me home anymore, but I’ll find a new so-comfortable home. I new place for my cats to explore, for my books to line up side by side, for my knitting stash to grow, for my friends to come for dinner and brunch and writers’ group and book club. Home. Again.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Fat Talk: Giving Over My Body

I’ve been having  lot of physical therapy the last few years. I’ve had a handful of knee surgeries, and now some new knee business and a rotator cuff injury, so PT comes with the territory. A few weeks ago, as Yu-Lan was manipulating my shoulder, I had a little epiphany: I don’t trust people with my body. I don’t relax in other people’s hands.

Yu-Lan needed my arm limp so she could move my shoulder the ways she needed to. I couldn’t relax it. I kept thinking I had relaxed it, and then she’d shake her head and my arm and say, “Let it go.” This went on for a while.

My past PT experiences have been similar. First Daniel, then Mark, tried really hard to get me to relax so they could do their work. I’ve been working with Jeremy for my shoulder–was seeing Yu-Lan because Jeremy was sick that day–and have had the same story play out with him.

With Daniel, I chalked up my tension to the fact that Daniel is beautiful. He looks like Takeshi Kaneshiro in House of Flying Daggers. Really. To have this unreasonably-pretty young man put his hands on me was both pleasant and alarming. But–with no intention to throw shade–that wasn’t the issue with Mark. And, as cute as Jeremy is, he’s not the kind of cute I go for, so I definitely can’t blame my libido.

*

I’m middle-aged. I got fat at 15. I’ve spent pretty much my whole life paying very close attention to my body. I’ve learned to be hyper-aware of how much space I’m taking up at any given time, and of how I’m taking that space. I’ve learned to be aware of how my body exists in relationship to other people’s bodies, to other people’s thoughts and feelings about my body.

I’ve spent years choosing to stand so as not to force other passengers on the train or bus to accommodate my size. When I have chosen to sit, I’ve used the things I’ve learned about how to angle my body so that it fills less space, even though all of those tricks leave me uncomfortable.

But all of that, all of those ways of focusing on my body, are different. What I realized with Yu-Lan is something other. Not trusting people to handle my body with care points past the body-awareness I’ve had to develop as a fat person. Points, instead, to the root catalyst of my fat. I don’t trust people with my body because people haven’t shown themselves to be trustworthy when it comes to my body.

It’s not a particularly surprising point, of course. Surely the fact that I’ve been writing so much about my body lately is why working with Yu-Lan illuminated this point for me. But what does it mean? What has it meant over time in my life?

It’s little things: Removing myself from any professional development or team-building activity that would or could possibly include trust falls or other intense physical contact with co-workers. Refusing a hand up when climbing walls or trees, when mounting horses, preferring to risk myself by managing on my own rather than risk myself by relying on someone else’s ability to make me safe.

It’s little things: I am a lousy partner dancer, incapable of letting a man lead. I’ve had one male partner who  was able to lead me without me fighting against his gentle guide. One. Every other time I’ve tried partner dancing, it has ended badly. I literally resist my partner’s movements, move in opposition to him as if we are adversaries. It’s never been confrontational, but it sure as hell has made for awkward, clashing dance. I’ve always chalked it up to the fact that I am a crap dancer–because I am a crap dancer–but I think there’s more to it than that. When I dance alone, I’m a far less crappy dancer. When I took belly dance classes, for example, I was totally dance dyslexic–always moving in the exact opposite direction from the one the instructor indicated–but the moves were fluid, came naturally out of my muscles without resistance.

It’s not-so-little-but-entirely-obvious things: Struggling with medical exams, fighting against doctors’ requests for access to my body the way I fight a partner’s dance moves. Struggling to fully relax in the arms of a lover, in bed with a lover. Struggling to trust that person not to morph into someone else, someone untrustworthy, someone dangerous, having my mind play the mean trick of showing my lover change faces as he lies beside me in bed, turning into a stranger, into a demon, into the devil.

*

I’m wondering about the fact that I am extremely ticklish … which makes me think about cats. And Elmo. (Yes, of course. Elmo.) But first cats.

Cats have this thing where they use their purring as protection. When they are stressed or nervous or frightened, some cats will purr to appease, to signal the need for help. Purring appeals to us, makes the cat seem kinder, sweeter, makes us–if we aren’t monsters–less likely to harm the cat. If the cat is afraid of you and purring inspires you to pet the cat, to show it kindness and offer it food or care, that fear response is helpful, protective.

And this is why I’m thinking about my ticklishness and Elmo. I thought Tickle Me Elmo was incredibly annoying, but also creepily manic. That crazed, fake, flinching laughter was a lot like my own response to being tickled, something I’m only seeing now, and I wonder if that was another reason I loathed that toy.

When we are tickled, we are at the mercy of the person tickling us. We are in their hands, literally. And the places where they touch us, where we are sensitive to tickling, aren’t the places casual acquaintances would normally touch us: our waists, the backs of our knees, under our chins, the bottoms of our feet, our stomachs. People who tickle others force an intimacy that may or may not be welcome, desired.

Is then, the response to tickling–manic laughter–like the cat’s purr? Is my hysterical laugh my fear response masked as cuteness? My way of inspiring the person touching me to treat me kindly?

*

I have one strong memory of giving myself over to strangers’ hands, of going completely limp and letting other people manage my body.

Years ago, my sister and I went to an Echo and the Bunnymen concert at the old Felt Forum. Fox, my sister, and I went to a lot of concerts back then. We were good at getting right up in front of the stage. But Fox never stayed at the front. There would always be a moment when she’d look at me and say she was headed to the back of the venue. I, stubbornly, refused to go with her–we were right at the front!–so we’d pick a spot to meet after the show, and she’d disappear through the crowd.

The Echo and the Bunnymen show was no different. She told me it was time for her to go, we picked our meetup spot, and she left. Almost immediately, the crowd turned violent–because that’s Fox’s spidey-sense super power: she knows when a crowd is about to turn. People were pushing and elbowing and punching to get those of us in front out of their way. I was knocked to the ground and the people around me began kicking me. I couldn’t get myself up, and I was pretty sure I was going to die.

From nowhere, a stranger was cradling my head and then pulling me up, some man I didn’t know. He got me on my feet and kept his arm around me, asked me what I wanted to do. He said I could stay, and he’d keep me beside him, keep me safe, or he could get me out. I didn’t see how he could manage it, but I opted for getting out.

He said I’d have to go hand over hand up to the front barricade and then out. That didn’t make any sense, but I said okay, and somehow he lifted me and lay me across the top of the crowd and the crowd passed me–hand over hand–up to the security staff at the barricade and they pulled me down and helped me get out.

That whole passing-hand-over-hand part? I was rag-doll limp. I didn’t assist in my rescue even enough to lift my feet so that my big, combat-booted feet didn’t smack folks in the head as I was passed forward.

Never mind the fact that I still believe that man didn’t actually exist, that he was my guardian angel in corporeal form intervening because it wasn’t my time yet. I certainly never saw him after the show. And there’s no way he should have been able to lift me as easily as he did and settle me on top of the crowd. There’s no way the crowd–which seconds earlier had been kicking the life out of me–should have come together to pass me up to the security guards. Clearly Divine intervention.

But never mind all of that. How was I able to be so handle-able? How did I manage to go fully limp at a moment when I knew I was at the mercy of dangerous strangers?

*

In my PT visit after working with Yu-Lan,, Jeremy needed me to trust him. He needed to test the movement of my pelvis, hips, and knees. To do that, I had to be limp, had to let him take my leg in his arms and bend and twist and swing and pull it in many different ways. I had to lie limp while he pressed down on my pelvis and into the space where my thighs meet my torso. Some of these movements are awkwardly intimate, but Jeremy is wonderfully professional. While being gentle and sure-handed, he basically manipulates my body as if I were a large mound of bread dough–no danger of mistaking the intent of his touches.

I kept freezing up. Seizing up. Tried several times to pull away from him. He was worried that he was hurting me, but I assured him he wasn’t.

“So quit fighting me,” he said, laughing.

Yeah. Would that it could be so simple.


One in a series of essays inspired by reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting. Thank you.

I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.