One time I saw a cat try to cross a four lane highway. He wasn’t a full fledged cat, yet. His body was still small and fluffy, but he had those long legs and huge paws that said he would be a huge cat once he was finished growing. The last thing I saw before the tire of a car in front of me smashed into him was his too-long teenage kitty legs stretched as far as they would go, like a teeny leopard streaking across a jungle of concrete.
I wondered what on earth would make a cat take the chance of crossing over four lanes of highway–was it something wonderful? Something that might feed his belly for a couple of days? Or was it something that made it too terrifying to stay where he was?
My father and I are sitting in a tiny smoke filled restaurant. It’s early morning, before school. There are men in factory blue uniforms all around us, several of them greet my father as we walk in and find a table. For a while, my father is busy chatting with the other men. But eventually he turns to me.
I feel his gaze on my face. I don’t know what to do or say. My sweaty hands twist together under the table.
Then I feel his head turn away from me. Back toward his friends.
He doesn’t know what to do or say either. He picks up a menu and opens it.
I don’t know what is worse, his attention or the lack of it.
I try to ignore the twisting in my stomach.
It is my birthday.
I didn’t want to watch Battle Star Galactica. But I finally did, and I couldn’t stop watching. I’m not finished with the series yet, but I’m watching at least three shows a day, if not more. I always knew that one of the main characters on the show, Admiral Adama, was played by Chicano actor, Edward James Olmos–but I never really understood what that meant until I started watching the series. What it meant to see this little Chicano commanding an entire fleet of ships, giving orders, daring people to not obeyz. What it means to see a Chicano defy the first rule of science fiction–that there is no place in space for Chicanos. Not unless there’s a plantation somewhere that needs workers to harvest food for the heros.
And who can think of Edward James Olmos as anything BUT Chicano? The ulimate pachuco? He was one of the first actors to openly claim the deeply politicized “Chicano” rather than the more ambivalent “Mexican-American” or the assimilated “Spanish.”
The proud thrust of the head, the deep lean in the stance, the defiant care given to each article of clothing–the sneer, the confidence, the control–Admiral Adama learned everything he knows from El Pachuco. A born leader. Meant for more than endless picking in fields that don’t belong to us. Admiral Adama is as scary as he is admired. People don’t stand up to him or question him, they know better. But they also speak of him with a sense of awe. They trust his control.
But then Lieutenant Adama shows up. The son of El Pachuco hurts to look at. Only barely able to meet his father’s eyes. More comfortable addressing his father with “sir” than the more vulnerable “dad.” And angry. So angry he ran away and only came back because there was no place else to run to. Only world-wide apocalypse could force the son to face his father again.
The son is not simply “everything the father is not.” It’s more complicated than that.
The son is the crack in the fierce arrogance of El Pachuco.
The son does not trust the father. Or his control.
The son knows better.
And so is afraid.
I wanted to be my Dad when I was a kid.
Talking with a friend the other day, I remembered sitting in my childhood living room, watching the MTV official release of the Billy Joel video, Uptown Girl. Remember that video? Where Christie Brinkley is in a flowing white dress and Billie Joel is in workers blues? Watching that video as a child, I understood for the first time that my dad was important. Somebody that people made videos about. Somebody that people admired. Somebody the girl wanted.
I wanted to be that man. I wanted to be my dad.
Everything that he was, I was not.
He was brave, I was not, he was smart, I was not, he was a good worker, I was not, he was desirable, I was not. Everything he was, I was not.
I wanted to be my dad.
Not a mistake.
The place where one lives permanently, esp. as a member of a family or household.
esp. as a member of a family or household.
esp. as a member of a family
I’m the son nobody wanted. I’m the son my chicano dad didn’t want. I’m the son that my Chicano dad never learned to want, once he got to know me better. That’s what’s supposed to happen, right? The unwanted pregnancy turns into a wanted kid?
I had a Chicana friend who had a Dad like mine. She wound up the coddled baby of the family. The apple of the eye, the protected princess, the one who got that cherished name. m’ija. m’ijita when the love was overwhelming.
I couldn’t talk to her for months after I found out that she confronted her father and the way he treated her. And wound up in his lap, their tears mixing, their love reaching to each other and finally touching, the start of a new world. How do you talk to somebody through clawing jealousy? How do you keep misplaced anger from burning down the wrong thing?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned I’m not alone. There are lots of father’s that never wanted their children. Lots of men that never will want the children they create. Will Smith in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air loses it in front of his uncle. Why didn’t that bastard want me?
Why didn’t he want me?
I have learned that this is question that can never be answered. That even if I could ask it of the man who lived in the same house with me for 17 years, the answer will be imperfect. Men answer “I don’t know” to hard questions. To escape the vulnerability, to escape the fear.
El Pachuco doesn’t care if he is loved. He doesn’t need to love. That’s what makes him so fierce. Desirable. What we all want to be. That’s what makes us love him and trust him.
But El Pachuco is afraid. He is more comfortable running than he is with staying. He often doesn’t need to run because he was never there to begin with. He doesn’t need to be loved–not because he is brave, but because he is afraid. Unused to the work of love, unused to the work of home. Unused to being vulnerable to another person.
So if he stayed, he sits, a stranger in his house. All around him too afraid to speak, to afraid to be noticed, by the man in the chair with beer and the always on TV. By the man who now uses work to keep his family from getting too close.
Your father has worked all day! If you bother him, you’re going to be whipped!
A home is a human right. A home is the definition of family.
esp. as a member of a family or household
Who are you if you never let yourself have a family?
Who are you if you share a house with somebody who never wanted a family?
Who never wanted you?
i try to imagine that letter. you know–the one that all the therapists say to write to people who you have things to say to, but can’t say them. i try to imagine it, but it’s too preposterous for even my imagination to talk to my father. what do i say to a person who doesn’t want to talk?
i am learning more and more the story of my femmé self. but the part of me that i counted on for so long–the part of me that is tuff and kept me alive and fought even when i didnt think i could fight anymore–i don’t know who that macha is, who that son is. what story the macha son needs to tell.
it’s been harder for me to come to terms with the son, harder than it ever was for the daughter. i never hated the daughter. the daughter, i did not value–and so the journey was learning to value her. when you go on that journey with other latinas who love through sharing what they’ve learned on their own journeys–this is almost a fun journey.
the son–i actively hated. the son–i punched, kicked, beat, and even stabbed. it was the son who cut. not the daughter. the father was everything the son was not. neither one of us had the skills or resources to notice or point out that the father was broken. or that the son was trying to break himself to be like him.
the son is all the mistakes the father has never made.
I crumple up the paper. i don’t try the letter writing again.
I thought becoming a mother might change how I felt about my father. That it would plant a seed of sympathy and understanding that I could grow over time. Indeed, I can tell you the stories of being Pachuco tuff with my kids. Ordering them to stop crying.
But the truth is, parenting just reaffirmed that I was the coward. The mistake. I was not prepared to do what it would take to make those kids shut up, cuz God only knows you can’t just tell them to be quiet and expect them to listen. You need to actually do something to make them stop. But I didnt have the heart to hit them, or even just to scare them.
But boy did I know how to run. One day I pull the car off to the side of the road, tears blinding me, gagging me as they loosen mucus in my nose and throat.
W* and I were fighting. The kids were angry at us for fighting and kept yelling at us to stop. I wanted to stop, tried to force my mouth into quiet. But I couldn’t. I kept yelling and yelling, until leaving was the only thing left to do. I slammed the door with extra emphasis as I left. Fuck them.
But then the tears came, and I had to pull off to the side of the road. I knew the choice in front of me. I could leave. I could keep driving and never ever come back. Then it would all be over–the fighting, the mistakes, the fear.
Or I could go back.
I know what choice El Pachuco would make. And I knew that I couldn’t make that same choice. I can’t leave my family. I can’t leave my home.
I take a deep breath, dry my tears and turn the car around, towards home. W*s arms wrap around me when I get there, and we apologize. We talk to the kids together. It isn’t until later that it finally occurs to me that it’s not cowardice that keeps me there, it’s love.
But, I argue with myself, the son–he is the coward. The father’s mistake.
The other day a white *F*eminist said that she “could care less” about minority representation on film. Another white *F*eminist said she doesn’t include characters of color in her work because “she doesn’t know any people of color.”
You have to write what you know, they argue.
There is a scene in Battlestar Galactica.
El Pachuco wants to stay in a dangerous situation in the hopes of finding the girl that he loves like a daughter. He fights to stay in that situation, trying to buy time. He uses the power of El Pachuco bully others into staying when they all want to leave. He fights for the girl he loves like a daughter. But who isn’t his daughter.
Eventually, El Pachuco realizes–-it’s time to go. He is potentially sacrificing the lives of his entire fleet for one person. It’s time to go–and face the devastating loss of the girl he loves like a daughter. But who isn’t his daughter.
The cowardly son asks El Pachuco that terrifying question–the one that tears at the throats of all of us with El Pachuco for fathers. Would you have done all this if she had been me? Or: Do love me, too? Do you love me as much as you love this girl–who isn’t even your daughter?
Are you brave enough love?
Are you brave enough to love me?
Edward James Olmos knows not to be outraged that this son would ask this father such a question. Olmos knows he is a Chicano, and he accepts his responsibility as an actor to his community. He knows that we need stories too–that we need more than just Chicanos in space. Edward James Olmos knows what it means for El Pachuco to pull his son (m’ijito) into his arms and whisper fiercely, if it was you? I never would’ve left.
El Pachuco has finally stopped running.
El Pachuco is finally a dad.
El Pachuco finally is brave enough to love.
Because we need stories too.
our land is the freeways, the highways, the backroads nobody knows about but us.
gloria anzaldua defined us as movers, and border crossers–but she was careful to point out that the goal is to get back home. even if it’s not the home we left. if we have to build it ourselves.
because what are we, without a home?
what would happen if we stopped using all the roads slicing through our communities to run? and used them to come back home?
even if it’s not the home we left?
how can stories help us to build the home that is our human right?
our human right.
because we’re not mistakes.
I am sitting in my car, waiting to pick up kids from school. I’ve been traveling all day, up and down I-75, back and forth over I-94, across M-13 to finally wind up in a line of cars filled with parents waiting for the school bell to release their children
My butt hurts from the hours of sitting. My hair is whipped into a rats nest from the open windows on freeways. The radio blares as I flip through the pictures on my i-pod. I find the one I am looking for. Of me. The sun is over my shoulder, my face is in the shadow. My eyelashes stand out against my cheeks. I see my son’s eyes in mine. My eyes that are my father’s.
It is just family in this moment. Just us.
We are together. Our human right.
El Pachuco has finally stopped running.
El Pachuco is finally a mami.
El Pachuco finally is brave enough to love.
I would never leave.
It is our story.
i was (re) born in Flint….
I wandered so aimless life,
then praise the lord, i saw the light.
now i’m so happy…
only, being (re) born in flint, it didn’t make me happy. it didn’t fix things for me. in many ways, it made things worse. i’ve spent most of my life since flint trying to recover from that birth.
birth is wonder and joy and tears and love–but birth is also ripping, bleeding, tearing. agony.
where do i say i’m from? when the place that birthed me almost killed me?
it’s my day one day off in three months and i’m sitting on an icy cold bench in the middle of a small wooded area in the back of a library. anytime i’m not working, i’m usually sleeping. but today, i need to be outside. i need to hear trees instead of frying meat, i need to smell dirt instead of grease. i need to remember that i’m only 18.
my journal sits unopened in my lap. in a different world at a different time i had wanted to be a writer. i breathe icy air deep into my lungs. try to undo the twisty knot in my stomach.
the cold of the bench against my legs makes them ache. but i don’t get up. i have no place to be, nobody to be there for. the only people who would notice my absence if i died in these woods would be the people at work.
and they’d be looking for me to tell me i was fired.
i’ve been watching old bob probert and joey kocur hockey fights from the 80s. i spent my youth wanting to be joey kocur. boy, he could beat the shit out of a person. there was nothing I loved watching more than joey kocur slam his gloves off and grab a hold of someone’s shirt. fighters were beautiful in how they moved. they were beautiful in their masculinity. because those big guys had a fighting code, and ethic. they didn’t take on little guys. and they didn’t fight just because. they fought to protect. to take care of. to make sure nobody messed with the team captain or the high scorer. they gave other players the room to be brilliant.
watching those hockey fights in the 80s was how i learned working class love is shown less in words and more in how willing somebody was to put their body in the way of a train for you. how willing they were to fuck somebody up who tried to hurt you. ‘i got your back’ wasn’t just something you said.
but watching these fights now…mostly just make me sad. especially watching bob probert. kocur had (and still has) his problems with alcohol and drugs, sure–but probert. the intensity of his some of his fights went well beyond a loyal teammate defending his captain, and stepped into the coked up rage territory. where the calculated tactics of hockey fighting (grabbing the jersey, pulling the pads over the head, etc) were forgotten, and the other player became the stand in for every hurt probert ever had. his fighting leaked off the ice–there were bar fights and domestic violence arrests. there was therapy and sincere apologies to the press, but it never stopped. the rage so there could be no pain.
and eventually, probert fought kocur. they were good friends. good friends who usually avoided each other on the ice. because each of their jobs was to enforce. to fight. to be the one who loved so much, he’d use his body to protect. they were protecting each other by avoiding each other.
but the time came when they couldn’t avoid. kocur may have been smiling at the end of the fight, but probert–he meant for that fight to happen. he was angry. he wanted to hurt kocur. it was only because kocur was as good a fighter as probert that he handled probert, wouldn’t let himself become an object to be punished by probert.
that fight was the first time i saw the truth about loyalty and masculinity and working class love. sometimes masculinity was ugly. sometimes it was a burden so great the only reason friends survived it was because they were as big as you. sometimes loyalty was a job. and a job always trumped friendship. even for fighters. there’s a reason why hockey was so firmly embraced by working class detroit for so long. all of us workers could see and understand what Bob Probert and Joey Kocur were doing when they got in fights…and we all knew what it meant when they got arrested (again) for drunk driving. because we were leaving work and doing the same thing.
trying to cope.
my kid’s been studying the Great Sit Down Strike of Flint for school. through the course of studying, she came across a woman named genora dollinger. i am a women’s studies major and I had never heard of dollinger. i am from flint, and I never heard of the sit down strike until after i left. but since i found out about dollinger, i’ve been reading/viewing everything i can, sharing what i can find with my kid, but mostly just absorbing what this woman said and did.
she was perhaps most well known for forming the womens emergency brigade during the strike. but she was truly admired by me for standing up to her white supremacist father. for dragging her kids to protests. for talking openly about getting an abortion. for continuing to organize even after being beaten almost to death. for using the time she spent in the hospital recovering from bouts of tuberculous to read up on socialist theory. for organizing even when she had to put paper into her shoes to cover up the holes in them. who can afford new shoes when you have two babies to feed and a protest to organize?
she wasn’t the most eloquent writer. she was blunt and practical, cut right to the chase. i also tend to think that genora probably took up way too much space and knew her own story too well. she’s done a lot of interviews, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between each of the interviews because she says almost the same thing in each of them.
but is it her fault that she was asked the same questions repeatedly?
is it her fault that the only value anybody ever found in a sick old woman from flint michigan was in the way she could fill the bellies of lecherous academics?
genora spent a lot of time when she was older fighting for the place of women in the collective memory of the sit down strike and union organizing. at a celebration of one of the anniversaries of the sit down strike, she used her time to speak to berate a male historian who was on the stage sitting next to her for how he had written about the women of the strike. when she was done, he threatened to take genora down. she told him to fuck off.
most people would see that as fearless. feminists would write that moment as bold, as inspirational. standing up for women. i suspect some of it really was because she was an inspirational bad ass who wasn’t afraid of shit. but i suspect more of it was because she knew better than most how a body could be eaten and spit out–replaced the next day, like it never existed.
and how badly to be forgotten hurts when the only thing you’re allowed to have is memories.
i’m laying on the hospital bed, an oxygen mask on my face, steroids pumping into my arm, an oxygen counter hooked up to my finger. my cook’s apron hangs on the chair next to the bed, my work boots ground dark stains on the sterile white sheets. i’ve had another asthma attack at work.
later on in life, i’ll be in therapy, and we’ll wonder if those asthma attacks i kept having were really panic attacks. but back then, when i was 18 and working 60-70 hour weeks so i wouldn’t be on the streets, i scared enough people that they called the ambulance.
and now i am laying on the hospital bed. i can smell grease mixed with oppressive body odor. i try not to imagine what the doctors and nurses who were working on me thought of when they smelled me. i hadn’t noticed the smell when i was at work. everybody smells just like you.
the nurse checks in on me, then points to the phone. says i can call somebody to come sit with me. leaves the room. i lay on the bed, breathing the oxygen, watching the numbers measuring how much oxygen is in me shift up and down, up and down.
i don’t move.
there’s no one to call.
the men and women of the flint sit down strike weren’t sitting down for money, per se. men were working so hard and so long, they’d come home and collapse on the floor, unable to even bring the fork of food their wives had cooked to their lips. black men working the worst jobs had skin burned off their backs from the heat of steel vats. fingers were lost to the ravenous machines. wrap up the stump, get back to work. there’s plenty of men who would love your job.
genora noticed things woman’s perspective. men were not good husbands. they beat their wives. came home drunk, trying to cope. with the burning ravenous machines. and doing it badly. women didn’t have enough money after the drinking to feed the kids. working women had to deal with predatory bosses. in one department, an entire shift of women had to be treated for the STD a boss had given them.
when the men sat down, it wasn’t for the money. it was for their lives. so they could be good husbands. so they wouldn’t hurt so badly they needed a drink just to make it to bed. so they could focus on their growing up kids.
when the women supported their husbands, their brothers, their fathers, their fellow workers, it wasn’t for the money. it was for their lives. so they could see their husbands smile. so they could work without fear. so they could finally see the future their children would live.
so they wouldn’t be spit out. forgotten.
the sit downers got a lot of things wrong. genora herself would tell you in a heartbeat what they got wrong, if you ever asked her a question that assumed she was critically aware. you never saw intense like when you asked genora about the bureaucracy that mandatory union fees created.
but something the sit downers got right was that they knew a union was about better pay so that workers could be more human. they knew the sit down was about better working conditions so that workers had time to remember they were human. they knew they couldn’t stop because if they did, they were agreeing to feed themselves to the voracious machines.
they looked at that desperate feeling of being forgotten straight in the face. just some drunk. just some white trash. commie trouble makers, wife beaters, lezzies, whores, tramps.
replaceable bodies, scarred knuckles…
and they said solidarity. forever.
it’s amazing how radical their decision was, even today.
do we have that same clarity?
that same understanding?
that we’re fighting for each other?
i’ve seen the documentary on genora dollinger and the women’s emergency brigade at least five times already–two times in a theater packed with community members. suddenly people want to remember genora and the women of flint. suddenly people find her useful. at one post-viewing panel i attended, we were supposed to talk about how important women were, about how nothing could’ve been accomplished in that strike if it weren’t for the women. and the three union men on the panel called me “little lady” and “girl” whenever i asked a question or made comments.
i didn’t have enough guts to ask them what they thought genora would think of them calling her that.
i was born in one city. and then i moved to another, and faced down what genora dollinger and all the sit downers did decades before me. nobody to call. nobody who cared. used parts.
i was being used. and forgotten. forgotten even as I stank up their sterile rooms, greased up their white cotton.
it was in that city that every bit of me finally died. completely collapsed under the pain of having no one to call. but it was also in that city that other people who knew the shame of smelling without knowing it invited me out for drinks. who shared their joint with me out by the dumpsters on smoke break. who didn’t ask why i never talked about my family. who had my back when the guy at the bar started a fight with me. who put their body in front of a running train. for me.
and so in flint, i was born.
i spent most of my life believing there was something good, something valuable, about me because i was a hard worker. because like a good mexican, i did the work nobody else wanted to. i picked the blueberries. i scrubbed the floors. i washed the dishes. i worked instead of studying. i worked for free. i worked so hard and so well, people couldn’t see what that work was doing to me. they didn’t see the shoulder pain that i still, 30 years later, am going to therapy for. they didn’t see the slices in my arms, memories from the ritual i performed at night, trying to feel something. anything. they didn’t care how small my dreams were. they didn’t ask if i was ok. they just kept repeating; oh, thank you SO much for doing this so i don’t have to!
and their gratefulness was enough for me.
gratefulness is a type of love. right?
flint didn’t just help me to see what all that work was doing to my body. it slapped me in the face with the truth. unless you fight, unless you love, unless you look at the person next to you, and see yourself in them–you will be forgotten. replaced. and forgotten. because there’s always somebody who will work if you won’t. used parts.
but even as flint slapped me, it tried to soften the blow. other broken people surrounded me. and showed me how to love in the war years.
i am walking in the woods. i have to keep a good pace, there is only an hour before i need to pick the kids up from school. but the wind is blowing so hard, i’m almost knocked over with each step i take. i should go back to the car and just listen to music or write–but i keep walking. the ground is slippery under my feet. it rained recently, and the leaves are slick with decay.
i had to leave flint. once i had kids, i could hardly tolerate the taste or smell of flint, much less the slap in the face. the thought of my babies getting that slap filled me with rage. other people, people with more money or whiter parents or better luck, their children weren’t being slapped. their children were so precious, so valuable, people quit jobs for them. to stay home and take care of them. nurture them with big dreams and lots of love. other people’s loyalty to their children was not a job. and their children have never been the used parts the machines spit out.
and so i decided that my children wouldn’t be used in their place. my children would be precious, and valuable to the world too, even if i had to kill the world to make it happen. so i packed them up and left. the city that birthed me.
things were not any easier in University Town. people could tell immediately that i didn’t belong. one child on my hip, the other child squirming in my belly as i answered the professor’s question. but i stayed. fought down their stares. because i knew what was meant for me, for my children, if i didn’t.
i still, even now, am far too aware of how close being forgotten circles around us all. around me. those are the especially hard days. sometimes, i can’t get out of bed. other times, i come out swinging, destroying anything and everything i can. the only reason loved ones survive is because they are as big as i am. and know how to fight back.
but the good days are starting to outnumber the bad ones. and on the good days, i think more and more about flint. about the sweat watered ground. the roaring freeways. connecting us all.
to each other.
to the day we said fuck it
we can change the whole thing…
for each other.
i have reached the area I was looking for. a large field of wild flowers and over grown grass. two long tracks are dug into the earth from years of trucks driving through the field. the wind is still blowing hard, but it’s not cold. i have a few minutes before i need to head back to the car.
after i pick up the kids, i’ll stop by W*’s work and pick him up too. maybe we’ll go out to dinner. spend the evening catching up with each other. or maybe we’ll pop in one of the harry potter movies and and talk through it like we always do. because we’ve seen the movies just that many times. or maybe the kids didn’t get enough sleep last night and are angry little bears now, and W* and i will fight all the way home. where i’ll go to the computer and he’ll go to the t.v.
i don’t know. it’s hard to predict what will happen in the future. but when you know how to love in the war years…there’s a little less about the future to worry about.
i breath in deeply. the rays from the winter sun glitter on the field in front of me like water. i raise my arms up to the sky, lean into the whipping wind. it holds me up, pushing into me, rushes through me. i close my eyes and feel the warmth of the sun burn into my face.
i am from flint.
and i am alive.
i exhale slowly, lower my arms. then i turn and start the walk back to the car.
the sound of water is everywhere.
it starts in my abdomen, the soft whir of incoming waves building until it crashes into my ears.
my hands go to my body and I try to pay attention, try to see the sun from under the waves,
but my body relaxes
and i sink…
i went to california recently. and saw the pacific ocean for the first time in my life. as i hiked toward it on that first day in california, i kept hearing a sound–like traffic. like the roar of the freeways that you can’t escape in southeast michigan. semi-trucks crashing across lanes, car tires slapping concrete, the relentless sound digs into your ears, even when you’re inside.
anger shifts into rage as i walk closer to the ocean. i am staying at a former army barracks converted into a national park and just this once, i need to see nature, feel nature, hear nature, without the taint of roaring freeways in the background.
but then i break through the forest i am hiking through and see for it for first time. the huge endless ocean. that’s when i realize that the roar was not coming from the freeways–but from the ocean.
thick rolls of sound crashing into rocks.
on that day…slow. a comfortable rhythm.
my feet easily shift from angry freeway rumble to the relaxed roll of the water.
i don’t stop walking until i am on a large cliff overlooking the entire ocean. i see nothing but water. no land, no people walking on the beach, no military barracks. just me and the ocean.
the sound is everywhere
and i sink…
it’s been years since i was suicidal.
but in michigan, things haven’t been going well. i was driving to work the other day, on that freeway that i have a relationship with. i see death almost everyday on this freeway, in the form of animals mostly, but every once in a while, people too. usually you know something horrible happened not because you see it, but because the freeway is backed up for hours. that usually means that whatever accident happened is deemed too grisly for the average person’s eyes and they shut down the freeway entirely until it’s cleaned.
sometimes, though, you see it. maybe the cops/ambulances aren’t on the scene yet. maybe it isn’t quite bad enough to shut everything down. traffic creeps along slowly enough that you can see the traumatized people’s faces as they stand next to obliterated cars, only aware enough to be grateful that they are not the person in the ambulance. you spend the rest of the slow ride into work thinking about things. thinking about life.
i try not to think about my time on the freeway much anymore. i try to respond to fear with sensible responses. leave two hours early so you can go slow. travel in the middle lane so you don’t have to deal with merging cars on the right or out of control trucks on the left. kitty litter in the trunk in case you get stuck. phone charged.
one day, as i was driving down the middle lane, i’m in control, i’m in control, i’m in control…
a car coming in the opposite direction flew into the median, flipped completely around from the impact of landing, rolled up the small hill of the median and crashed into the wire fencing on my side of the road. it all moved in slow motion, i could see exactly what was going to happen even as it was happening. it was as the other car crashed into the wire fencing that i was just starting to see that there was no way i could escape the collision, even by going slower.
if it wasn’t for the fence, i would’ve collided head first with the other car. but the fence was there. the fence was there.
once i realized i had escaped, i didn’t pull over, i didn’t call 911 to report the accident. i kept going my “safe’ pace down the middle lane of the freeway. breathing. in. out. in. out.
i am in control
it’s been years since i was suicidal. and yet,
as i sink, the water fills me, suffocates me,
i don’t fight.
i’m going to be 40 this year. it’s a momentous year, one that can point to my achievements, allow me to take inventory, and make the commitment to live the next 40 years as i haven’t lived the past 40 years, with intentionality.
but my boss started the year off with that talk. the “there is never any easy way to say this….this organization needs to make some changes….” talk. i knew it was coming. i had known for awhile. in a way that somebody always expects things to go wrong knows. i got the email from my boss on a friday, asking if we could meet the upcoming tuesday. i replied sure, and asked “why?” i never got a response.
so i knew. i knew what was going to happen before it happened. i almost hyperventilated as i waited for my turn to get fired (there were three other people fired on that day). i tried to text mr. toast for support–but my fingers were shaking too much. after almost dropping my phone, i gave up. took a deep breath. and walked into a room to face down a table full of board members and bosses.
“there is never any easy way to say this….”
can you be chicana and not have a job? a chicana getting a job is testament to the world that you are no longer a child, no matter how young you are. if you could bring home a paycheck, if you could help provide, you were grown. i’ve had a job since i was 11 years old.
what am i if i don’t have a job? what am i if i was fucking FIRED from my job? who am i allowed to be?
who am i?
i suffered for years from severe gallbladder issues. horrible attacks that completely immobilized me, drained me so much that i couldn’t get out of bed for days. after years of suffering, my body suddenly revolted and things got even worse. for three months i threw up everything i ate, had severe attacks constantly, and was mostly unable to get out of bed, even to work.
i finally convinced a doctor to take the damn thing out. i never felt more right about a decision–and yet, as the day drew closer and closer, i felt more and more backed into a corner. i’d be in bed, trying to doze, doing my best to quite my body, only to be awakened by dreams of people choking me, using my blankets to smother me. one day, the dreams were so bad, i finally forced myself out of bed and wandered around the house aimlessly, looking for something, anything, to distract me.
i found mr. toast working out in the garden.
he said hey as i walked to him and kept working.
i stood in front of him and made him stop.
suddenly, everything came hurling out. i just need to tell you in case i die from this surgery that i love you that i really love you and that i’ve loved you all these years even though i never really thought i did but i do and i need you to know that, to really KNOW that in case i die. i love you. i mean, i really really love you. i’ve never loved anybody else. just you.
he stood there for a minute and then smiled. i know you love me.
but i stopped him. no, i mean i REALLY love you. i’m not just saying it.
he paused. amused. so you mean you’ve just been saying it all these years?
yes, that’s what i mean. but i didn’t realize that i wasn’t actually just saying it, that i actually MEANT it. i really do love you. and i need you to know this. in case i die.
he laughed. and pulled me into his chest. his warm sweaty chest, that has held our crying babies for hours at a time, that i can perfectly snuggle my body into when he hugs me, my head resting in the curve of his neck, my body wrapped completely by his arms.
i know you’ve always loved me, bfp.
i needed you to know. in case i die.
he is kissing my face, my hair, my lips. you’re not going to die. and i love you too. i’ve always loved you.
the sky is blue. the warm air twists around us, holding us together.
i love you.
there is nothing like potential death to make a person brave.
the water floods my chest, i can’t breath.
i don’t fight it.
i don’t want to die. i’ve never wanted to die. even when i was suicidal.
but what is the alternative? it is near impossible to live life without love, without having been loved. i read this book by dr. gabor mate where he gave a case description of a man who doctors found had a serious illness. life threatening, but the guy definitely had a good chance. the guy, however, didn’t have a strong support team, didn’t feel like he was worth fighting for. so even after church members talked to him and his doctors talked to him and everybody talked to him and told him he had a really good chance of survival–the guy just shook his head. refused to fight, and eventually died. mate was using this story to talk about support systems and how having them can really help improve your chances of getting through a serious illness.
i took it as a testimonio. one that i could’ve written. what is the use of fighting, when there’s nothing to fight for?
i was that guy, and i didn’t even know it. a tale of two city’s unloved sydney carton. the lonely drunkard who was smart enough (hurt enough?) to know that it just didn’t make sense that the pure innocent lucie could love him. it didn’t make sense that anybody could love him. so he switches himself with a man about to be killed by a mob. sydney will be killed in his stead. the man sydney saves is the man who could be loved. the man who was dearly loved. who was not taking up space.
sydney does not send himself off to die from a sense of martyrdom (i will die so others can live!), but because there’s no reason to live. how could you be arrogant enough to take up space when you could never possibly be loved?
as a small child, i’d play make-believe and i was a beautiful and kind hearted girl who could see the good in sydney. so i loved him. and i’d plead with him to live, to please please live. eventually he’d be energized by my love, and i’d help him escape and we’d live happily ever after.
at some point, as i got older, i couldn’t manage to convince sydney that i loved him, even in my imagination. he’d look up at me sadly, shake his head, and turn away. eventually, i just stopped playing make believe. even my imagination couldn’t overcome reality.
water is flooding into my mouth, filling my chest. i can only see watery darkness.
i am safe.
i don’t want to die. i never wanted to die, even when i was suicidal.
and that’s why when i read that case study in that book that i can’t even remember the title of, i did not look away from the mirror. i studied what i saw for hours. shocked, not at the willingness to die, but at the comfort. the utter ease of drowning. the way i moved in it, as if with an old friend. no need to talk, no need to explain. understanding each other.
all these years, i thought the ease of my relationship with death came from a buddhist sense of resignation: death is inevitable. or maybe it was acceptance of my depression. depressed people are ok with dying. depressed people don’t want to die, but they can’t help themselves. they just have to one day, when it becomes too much.
as it turns out, i did not really have a relationship with death at all. lack of value was who i had formed the real relationship with. it made sense that nobody would want me in this world, that i wouldn’t want myself in this world. i stopped noticing how much sense it made, and it just became the norm. hegemony played out in my own body. complete and utter submission to “valueless.”
valueless wrapped itself around me, comforted me when things got hard. it makes sense that i messed that all up, i’m a fucked up worthless piece of shit, right? it makes sense that i don’t get recognition for work done, other people who work harder/are better than me deserve it more. who am i? and why should it matter that i get nothing? why *should* i get something?
i looked long and hard at all those thoughts. and i started to realize something. so much of my writing up until that point had actually verbalized all those thoughts and tried to reconcile, conquer, own, destroy, evaporate, make friends with, and control those thoughts– practically everything i had ever written in the past 10 years, if i was honest with myself.
and the more and more i thought about it, even when i moved outside of my blogging and into my school essays or my short stories or the letters i used to handwrite as a child–it was all the same thing. the invisible relationship that i thought i had never really noticed was actually a life long battle that i have been trying to detangle myself from since i was a small child.
somewhere in me, there was somebody who was actually fighting. somebody who kept pushing. somebody who was inside the prison, not sitting next to me, but sitting IN me. somebody who wouldn’t let go. somebody who, even in the worst of times, kept whispering–
but…but…where did you get the idea that worthless people don’t deserve life?
but…why does screwing that one thing up mean you’re worthless?
but…who decided you were worthless anyway?
but…why do you have to believe it?
somewhere in me (buddhists tell me it is my true self, the inner buddha that is in all of us), there was somebody who always knew better. and fought back through writing. i didn’t really understand that there was a fight going on. i couldn’t see it. maybe it was that i didn’t want to. because then i would have to take sides.
i never wanted to die, even when i was suicidal.
what i never knew was that i was actually suicidal because i never wanted to die.
and i thought that was the only choice i had.
reading the story of the man who thought his only choice was to die, because he was alone, worthless, valueless, i saw clearly that he was wrong. i saw this, because for the first time, somebody who had no vested interest in my own battle pointed it out. i believed dr. mate, because he never claimed to love what i knew to be unloveable. that’s the cruel irony of it all. those of us fighting this life long battle with “valueless”? we would never in a million years think anybody else didn’t have the right to live. we would never talk to anybody else the way we talk to ourselves. we would adamently stand up for the person being assaulted by the words and judgement that we inflict on ourselves. i have gotten into physical fights with men who treat women the way that i treated myself. i would destroy any human being who talked to my children the way i talked to myself.
so it makes sense that the time i finally paused, stopped, sat down and studied the mirror up in my face was the time when a person was pointing out my own actions in somebody else. when the person who was pointing out my own actions never claimed to love what i knew to be unloveable.
i still think about the man from dr. mate’s book. i am very defensive of him. i don’t want anybody to think that he was “stupid” for just “letting” himself die. that this about needing to “get a more positive attitude.” or “if you just believe in yourself.” or “if you would get out of the house more.” or any of the crap people who don’t know what is going on try to “help” with. i don’t know if what he (i) have is depression. i could make a strong case that it’s actually a bad case of oppression. but whatever it is, whatever this battle is about, “being more positive” or “believing in yourself” is not going to win it.
but because of him, i am not hopeless. something will win this battle, because now i know what is going on. for the first time, i believe this truth more than i believe the logic of “valueless.”
something will win this war.
and i will be there to see it done.
my dreams are shifting. i no longer want to be fearless or even brave. because now i know that they aren’t really the point. i want what others know, without question. without even noticing it. hegemony taking over their bodies. they are loved. of *course* they are loved. it is natural and makes SENSE that somebody loves them. hegemonic love. it’s ok to try new things and go new places and not be perfect and face down life with or without fear–because you are loved.
it’s ok to be happy, it’s ok to put your fists down, it’s ok to lay next to your life long loving partner who has been with you through all the war years, and not worry that he’s just faking it or there because of some mistake.
it’s ok to just relax. rest your hand on his alive beating heart, breath deep.
maybe it’s even ok to start itching back around that idea that formed so many years ago, that faulty logic. maybe it’s possible to love somebody like me. maybe loving somebody like me isn’t such an impossible concept. maybe…maybe.
“maybe” holds all the possibilities i have never imagined before.
in california, i read some of my writing out loud for the first time. i spent the whole time in california feeling awkward and alone and too afraid to say much of anything to anybody. i was still struggling with my health issues and i felt ill most of the time. so old and out of place among a group of young brilliant activists. it’s hard to be an introvert surrounded by extroverts–it’s near impossible to deal with social anxiety around people who all want to do “get to know you” activities into the middle of the night.
but on one night–the night where they did “open mic,” i decided to read something i had written. something about dancing.
that night after my kids got home, we started watching the opera Carmen. It’s a catchy opera that is a lot more accessible than other operas are, but even so, they both went upstairs after a while. I was ok with that, because as soon as they went upstairs, i got up—and at first just paced around for a while—but eventually, that evil little monkey thief took over. and i started to dance. i swirled and twirled and practiced holding my arms just so while looking in the mirror. i thought i was being quiet—but in that way that kids always do, within about 6 minutes they were back downstairs asking incessantly, what are you doing, what was that noise, why are you doing that, what is going on, i thought i heard something, what are you doing?
i stopped at first, and started to tell them to mind their own business—but then my body took over. that body that is the universe. that universe that i am learning to trust. and next thing you know, i was dancing.
when i was done, people stood and cheered for me. women surrounded me and hugged me. there were tears and love and laughter. it wasn’t that i was exceptionally moving, a writer above all others. it was that kind people knew i didn’t like being the center of attention and were genuinely rooting for me. it was that in that place, for once in my life, i decided i didn’t need to have both fists up worrying about what could happen. i didn’t need to worry about if i was taking up space i didn’t deserve to be in.
i deserve to be here.
my fists go down.
and i am alive.
i am standing at the top of a small cliff at the end of the world. the silvery grey ocean flutters in front of me, the sun dips into the water. the waves roll into me, roll into my abdomen, my ears, my cells. i spread my arms and allow myself to fall from the hill into the water, into the sun.
the universe i am learning to trust.
this body that is the universe.
my face breaks through the water,
i say hello
to the seagull that floats
next to me.
i am back from california and i am in his arms. i breathe in the smell of his chest, savor the heat radiating from his alive body. i am on top of him and waves are crashing. i have never seen him before this moment, never noticed so much about him. the way his face softens with (could it be?) love when he watches me, the way his calloused worker hands that have changed diapers and cleaned up my vomit hold me, won’t let me go. the rhythm rocks in my ears, flows through my body. i have never seen him before. in all these years, i never knew that he loved me. i never knew.
he is in me and through me and he knows how comfortable it feels to me to drown. but he pulls me up anyway. rubs the muscles in my chest, opens my lungs. so i can breath.
there are warm blue kisses and our breath in the sun and mr. toast whispering.
you’re not going to die. and i love you too.
when i was a child, a group of adults made me show them the hair on my back and how far my arms hung down my legs. they marveled at the dark hair that swirled across my neck and back, took eye measurements of my hands to leg ratio. then after discussing it amongst themselves, they informed me that my hairiness and long arms indicated my close relationship to the apes. i was different, unusual, apelike, because i had two parents of different races. and when two people of different races fuck, they make little animal babies that are a sin against god.
on a different occasion, an adult informed me that i couldn’t be a dancer because i was fat, which was bad enough. but also because dancers have lovely long necks—swan necks. swan necks highlight a dancer’s gracefulness and beauty and make others feel happy when they look at them. this adult then looked at me and with those measuring analytical eyes, said, you don’t have that.
i don’t have that. i don’t have the long swan neck that makes others feel happy just to look at—i have a fat hairy ape neck. i have the neck that proves why race mixing is bad.
that i am a sin against god doesn’t bother me much, as god and i have never really been all that close anyway. but that i can’t dance? that nearly destroys me. i’ve always danced anyway. i’ve always cranked up music and after carefully composing my own choreography, twisted and turned and swung my way to a standing ovation from an audience of adoring fans. but always in basements. always behind closed and locked doors. even my dear partner, Mr. Toast, has only seen me dance my imagination dance once or twice—and just quick glimpses. i know i don’t have a right to be dancing. i am a thief, not a dancer. a thief stealing a few moments from the swan necked goddesses who dancing belongs to.
i’ve always known the link between emotions and body. but as i’ve gotten older, i’ve learned that it’s not just “emotions” and “body”—it’s far more specific than that. it’s repressed violence and illness. your liver and gallbladder are intimately linked in much of non-western medicine; when you don’t have boundaries or can’t protect the ones you do have, the gallbladder falls apart, and the liver gets angry. when you can’t tell adults to leave you alone, when you cant see any other choice but to believe you are an ape-like sin against god, your body becomes the only way you can say no. the only way you can be angry, and then say no.
unfortunately, nobody but you can hear your body saying no. and when it is so normal to hear ‘no’ you stop listening after awhile. and then you find yourself like i was. twisted up from the constant spasm of my gallbladder and poisoned by my broken liver. unable to get out of bed most days, never dancing, not even in private.
the ape-child was trained as well as the swan necked dancer. stop stealing what was never yours. and shut up about it. even if it hurts. shut up.
eventually the pain gets so bad, i begin to understand that the deal i’ve made is not just to ‘be quiet.’ but to not exist. i read those words, ‘we were never meant to survive,’ and it puts the deal i’ve made out on the table, out in the open for the first time. i poke and prod at the deal, wonder if what it threatens could possibly be true. i feel the oozing burn in my stomach, the twisting claw around my liver. i remember that i suffered thru the agony of yet another gallbladder attack, silent, on the couch, so sleeping family aren’t bothered. and i realize the threats are actually true. threats no more.
and i just can’t accept that deal. i reject it. not forcefully, or even happily. at least not at first.
but i do start working with my body, working to unlock it. i go to healing sessions (acupuncture, reiki, limpias, never ‘The Doctor’), and i can feel my body working to push my brain to the side. my brain, the tyrannical prison guard that took over for those adults, kept me in line even better than they did. as my body frees itself from the death grip control of my brain, my body begins to recalibrate. in little ways at first.
a little way: mr. toast tries to talk to me while i’m working, i usually stop everything and listen. today i snap at him without even thinking—i’m WORKING. do I bother YOU at work?
a little way: the kids demanding food food food WE’RE SO HUNGRY! but i am sick. usually i get up to make them something anyway. this time i tell them there is cereal and milk or bread for sandwiches. make something.
the guilt creeps in—and my body revolts. but this time, not against itself. the kids make their own food, then ask me if i want something. mr. toast asks if i am busy the next time he sees me at my work table. it’s ok to say no. i relax. take a nap. and keep adjusting.
in big ways: I listen to a live broadcast episode of This American Life—it features a story of a man who, because of different operations to deal with his cancer, has lost the use of one of his arms. he talks of being gay and getting old and having cancer and being a person who used to dance. how much he loved dancing. how much he misses it, even though he was never any good at it. even though. he starts dancing on stage while ira glass softly describes his movements to listeners. he is old, gay and has an arm that doesn’t work. and he dances. so he is a dancer.
of course I cry. and am glad that nobody is home, because the tears quickly turn into The Ugly Cry. the stretched open mouth, the deep wrenching throat gasps, the snot leaking down the face like melting ice cream. The Ugly Cry for the little girl that just accepted without a fight that she was not human. The Ugly Cry for the grown woman with a tummy full of poison and no way to spit it out.
you reach a certain age, and you just know that there are some dreams that will never happen—you’ll never be a rocket scientist. you’ll never fuck somebody famous. you’ll never play the guitar in front of stadiums filled with screaming fans. you reach a certain age—and you just let those dreams go and it’s a bit sad—but it’s ok.
except i reached that age—and it wasn’t even that i decided to let go of the dream of dancing—it was that I never allowed myself to dream at all. i had let go of dreaming, erased it off my bucket list under the methodical eyes of adults that supposedly loved me. and then spent a lifetime apologizing for even daring to have “dream” on the list to begin with.
i cry so hard i almost throw up. out comes the poison, out comes the outrage, out comes the decades of no no no no…except i see the ‘nos’ now for what they are. the answer i was never allowed to have. and then the answer i learned to never give.
the dog walks over from his pillow, sits with his head on my lap. the cat moves to the back of the couch, so his body wraps around my head. i trust that the universe is letting me know it is ok to live life. that it is ok to live.
i decide that it is time to trust the universe.
that night after my kids get home, we watch the opera Carmen. It’s a catchy opera that is a lot more accessible than other operas are, but even so, it’s still an opera and both kids sneak upstairs after a while. I am ok with them leaving, because as soon as they leave, i stand up. first i just pace in front of the radio. but soon, the music wraps around me, lifts my arms, and i dance. i swirl and twirl and practice angling my fingers with delicate precision. i think i am being quiet—but kids have bat-like hearing, especially when they think their parents are enjoying themselves. almost immediately, they are downstairs doing that kid thing… what are you doing, what was that noise, why are you doing that, what is going on, i thought i heard something, can i do it too?
i stop at first, and start to tell them to mind their own business. but then my body takes over.
that body that is the universe.
that universe that i trust.
and then i am dancing. right in front of them. they’ve never seen me dance, except to slow dance with mr. toast. they are stunned for a minute, sharing astonished glances with each other. I turn up the opera and twirl a tight pirouette. then one kid laughs and dives under me. rolls around on the ground and finishes with a brilliant head toss, hair flying everywhere. the other child laughs and sort of tackles the first one, but elegantly. they both get up and kick their legs and hop around to the beat of the music. they are dancing. they are dancing because I am dancing. they are dancing with me.
i am a dancer who has changed the world.
i am a dancer.