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Bah Humbug Be Gone.

(Originally posted December 2, 2012)

7920683-humorous-illustration-cartoon-of-ebenezer-scrooge-with-one-green-ornamentI read recently that in our forties, we’re wise enough to acknowledge our bad habits and negative personality traits, and pliable enough to reform and avoid becoming cranky, nasty, annoying geezers. I’ve been cranky, nasty, and annoying since birth, and I become even more aware of it during the holiday season. I almost tossed rocks through a neighbor’s window to knock down the Santa figurines he displayed on the sill in mid-October. I know I need to change my ways and attitude or I’ll alienate all the people in my life. No one will visit me at the nursing home, and I’m sure some of my former students will be on staff. They’ll disregard the instructions on my prescription bottles as much as they did the directions for the college assignments they never submitted. I’ll die at their hands of an overdose or lethal medication combination.

I’ve also read that it takes three weeks to acquire a new habit. Therefore, I committed to doing one kind, nice thing every day before Christmas Day in 2012. I hoped to become a nicer Nancy in those 23 days and learn to enjoy the holiday season, instead of staying in bed with my quilt over my head and wishing all the cheer would just go away. To keep myself honest, I posted my progress (or not) every day.

I’m looking back at that time as I try to elevate my spirit again this year.

Saturday, December 1. 2012: I attended the five o’clock mass with my husband B. I didn’t think he’d make it to mass because I shocked el pobre with too much at once: I took a shower, I showered because I was going to accompany him to mass, and I would accompany him to mass in hope that I’d run into fellow parishioners I had not seen in a long time.  When B thinks of me, clean and social do not come to his mind. After mass, I was genuinely glad to catch up with people I hadn’t seen for weeks (okay, months). B was too light-headed to drive home though after I told the pastor I wanted to help decorate the church tree on December 22 and offered to pick up Wonder Bagels for the occasion.

Sunday, December 2, 2012: I complain plenty about, well, everything. A family member once told me, “Nancy, if you didn’t have anything to complain about, you wouldn’t have anything to write about.” Two things I complain about are the constant posting of notices in my building (e.g., the garage door is out of service for two weeks, there will be an increase in monthly maintenance fees, residents cannot park in the driveway for more than five minutes) and how much *&%$# stuff is accumulated in my and B‘s unit. There were new notices in the elevator this morning, but before I lost my s*** all over the place, I did as my therapist reminds me to do: I took a deep breath and rationally assessed the situation. The notice explained that the bins in the lobby are for donations of various items for the needy and homeless. I complain too much and don’t appreciate enough how overly fortunate I am. I placed coats and unworn winter items in the bins, and put non-perishables on the week’s grocery list to donate.

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Sugar fiend. (Part IV)

sugar-lumpsI was surrounded by selfish people at the dinner table. They called themselves my friends. Each of them self-centered, self-aggrandizing, blind to my struggle. Who wanted to hear about Jill’s volunteer work with the hospice program? Those people were on their way out, nearing their expiration date. Life was for the living and the living wanted dessert. Then Kyle had to tell us about his client, some guy facing 12 years. Kyle provided that guy with dress clothes for court appearances but couldn’t bring out the dessert for his dinner guests – his friends!

Yeah, yeah Kyle, I thought. Thanks for sharing. Now shut up and focus on the task at hand, man, and break out that dessert.

Kyle finally placed the cookies on the table. I sat rigid as Pavlov’s dog and waited the signal that would eliminate the space between me and the sweets. They were not the premium special batch cookies available at ShopRite, but the cheaper pre-packaged assortment – always a little too dry and shed their sprinkles in the clear plastic container, where it would be gross, weird or both to collect the colored specks with my moistened fingertip. It didn’t matter to me that they were low-quality cookies, an afterthought while Kyle had been at ShopRite. At the dinner table, the cookies took hostage of my thoughts.

Kyle was a thoughtless, selfish host. He continued and blah-blah-blahed all his self-congratulatory crap when the seal on the cookie container needed to be broken. The clock couldn’t start until that seal was broken. Rules were rules. I could have a cookie after waiting five minutes, not starting when the cookies were placed on the table, but when the seal of the container was broken. And the seal could not be broken by me.

Only I knew the rules, but I was no cheat. I could control myself. I could wait until that seal was broken and then wait five minutes. Five full minutes. I would sit at Kyle and Ted’s dining table, rigid and focused – all night if I had to – while they cleared the table, loaded the dishwasher, turned off the dining room lights, went upstairs to bed, and left me and the cookies neglected and alone in the dark.

What kind of a person did that to a guest, a long-time friend? Those forlorn cookies on the table were for me. Someone at the damn table – anybody but me! – needed to focus on what had to be done and break the damn seal so I could start the five-minute countdown so I could have a fucking cheap cookie. Was that too much to ask of friends?

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Sugar fiend. (Part III)

sugar-lumps

 

Weaning myself from carbs and sugars was going to be an endurance event. If it required visualizing, i.e., ogling baked goods from behind glass like a peep show patron, then so be it. My addiction was extreme; I had to be unorthodox in my recovery.

I had kicked ass in the past. I wasn’t going to let sugar kick me. I thought of my poor clogged, congested Susie and the discomfort we were both going through. I thought of the discomfort my poor husband was going through. Eww. In addition to the physical discomfort my sugar addiction caused him, there was the mental and emotional toll it took on both of us, and anyone who came into contact with me. My sugar highs were glorious cloud-grazing flights of euphoria. The crashes unleashed the enraged fiend driven by desperation for sugar in any form: from a packet, a linty starlight mint forgotten at the bottom of a purse, the synthetic mini marshmallows in hot cocoa packets. Sugar — in tremendous quantity — was the one thing I wanted at those moments.

I couldn’t remember life without sugars. The soundtrack of my childhood consisted of candy commercial jingles.

“Sometimes you feel like a nut,/sometimes you don’t./Almond Joy’s got nuts,/Mounds don’t.”

“Taste the rainbow of fruit flavors in Skittles:/strawberry, orange and lime!”

“The world looks mighty good to me,/it’s Tootsie Rolls around I see./Whatever it is I think I see,/becomes a Tootsie Roll to me!”

I remembered the animated Tootise Roll commercial: a little boy walked along a path through a magical land where trees became smiling Tootsie Rolls pops, the sky was filled with winged Tootsie Rolls, and the river flowed with chocolaty goodness. Who cared about the Land of Oz if there existed some magical region where I could lick the trees and bathe in a river where waves of chocolate would wash over me, my mouth open and greedy? Promised Land, Garden of Eden, who cared about any of those supposed paradises, with their guilt and suffering and danger that lurked and tempted? I wanted the simple gluttonous pleasures of Candy Land.

Yet it had been gluttony that had made a mess out of my Susie. I kept candy stashes at home: a Hershey’s kisses-filled basket by the door that I reached into every time I entered and exited. The jar of jelly beans in the cupboard that I dipped into so often that my palms were always sticky with brightly colored splotches. There was always candy in my bag: individually wrapped Twizzlers, rolls of Mentos, Caramel Parfait Nips and mini Muskateers. In a corporate cubicle maze, I could locate any unattended candy jar. Throughout my lifetime, I had consumed enough candy and sweets that my taste buds were perpetually sugar-coated and numbed to more complex or unpleasant flavors.

To facilitate my weaning, I ogled at the bagel shop and groped at Rite Aid. I couldn’t touch the baked goods at Wonder Bagels or the Italian pastry shop, but I could touch at Rite Aid. I lurked in the “Seasonal” aisle beginning in September. Stores had become shameless about displaying holiday goods in exaggerated advance of the actual holidays, but I said “Bring it on.” Halloween candy on the shelves while summer flip flops were still being marked down for clearance was fine with me. I walked slowly through Rite Aid’s Seasonal candy aisle, like I was visiting old friends. I held bags of candy corn and mellowcreme pumpkins, and fingered the firm candies in the crinkly bags. I gave the bags a little shake to hear the soothing rattle of the treats inside. I touched but never pressed the shiny foil wrappers of the Russell Stover chocolate-coated marshmallow pumpkins. There were so many bags and sealed edges. I imagined taking a corner between my teeth to tear into a seal, and feeling the bag’s soft sweet exhale on my lips. I recalled and fantasized of past pleasures, but only touched while I stood in the aisle of Rite Aid.

I looked. I allowed myself to touch. The desire was strong. Always. I wanted to give in and indulge, but I resisted. The weaning was for the best of my health, but I feared it was making me weird and crazy. My worst fear was that maybe I’d always been weird and crazy, but had never recognized it in my serotonin-induced delusions of splendor.

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Sugar fiend. (Part II)

sugar-lumps

 

Words are easy.

The easiest are those first-ones-that-come-to-mind words that POP into my head, instant-delivered, no exploring nor analyzing required. Those words are best kept unspoken, mental tchotchkes to be forgotten in a cluttered corner. I’m old enough to know that words spoken out loud commit me to some level of action. So I knew that just telling my gynecologist that I would cut the sugars from my diet was not enough to get the job done. I just didn’t anticipate how fucking hard the job would be.

Cutting back on alcohol was not so hard. I’d gone through previous periods when I’d had to limit or stop my consumption, for example during marathon training, focusing on time-consuming projects, and undergoing fertility treatments. And alcohol had never been dominant in my daily life; it was ordinarily something to enjoy at special social situations – a life accessory, not a life essential.

It was different with bread. From my waking moment to when I went to sleep, bread had always been pervasive throughout my day. I rationalized that I could still begin my days at Wonder Bagels in Jersey City, as long as I followed a look-and-salivate-but-don’t touch approach. Wonder Bagels didn’t serve the best coffee, but I bought my morning cup there so I could smell the baking bagels. I watched as Tony or Mike pulled a fresh batch from the oven with the wooden bread paddle and deposited the bagels into their corresponding baskets. Plain. Whole wheat. Everything. Sesame seed. So warm and beautiful, the holes puckered closed in the center of each plump bagel. They were a wonder indeed and I lingered at the counter, licked the rim of my paper coffee cup and my lips as I recalled the wonder of bagels past, the pleasure of the initial resistance of the bagel crust before my teeth pierced into the yielding inner mass. Never any butter nor cream cheese nor any spread. I recalled the many times my molars had macerated and mixed the crust and soft insides into the warm mass that cavorted with my tongue before I ingested it and the carbs released the happy chemicals in my brain.

That had been joy. Those had been moments of pleasure. My mornings lingering by the counter and getting lost in the recollection of the hundreds, maybe thousands of bagels I’d consumed? Those were weird. Even I recognized it. But they were necessary. I likened the culinary reminiscing to the visualizing techniques I’d used in the past to prepare for marathons. I used to recall the experience of past marathons to train for upcoming races, remembered the feel of the pavement beneath my feet, saw myself ascend hills, and approach and cross the finish. And just like the 26.2 miles of a marathon, the cutting-carbs-and-sugars project was an endurance event that I feared could break me.

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Sugar fiend. (Part I)

sugar cloud

 

There are things I don’t want to hear a man to say when he’s positioned between my legs.

“It’s thick in there all right. More like ricotta than cottage cheese though.”

That was my gynecologist’s professional assessment of the yeast infection that had led to my appointment. It was my third visit in two months for an infection that had gone from reoccurring to continual. My treatment options were dwindling. It didn’t make sense to insert medicated antifungal cream into my filled-to-capacity Susie. Oral antibiotics were the way to go, and Dr. B prescribed a five-day course of super-powered pills. However, if the infection didn’t clear or if I had to return for the same condition within 60 days, it would be time for the big guns: a six-month regimen of Diflucan, an oral antifungal about which I’d heard negative things from friends who’d taken it.

There had to be a better way. I thought I was doing all the right things. I ate Greek yogurt and drank cranberry juice every day to maintain healthy levels of acidity in my lady region. I wore cotton undies and removed my bathing suit immediately after swimming. I kept my Susie clean, dry, and kept away from perfumed soap, body products, even laundry detergent. I asked Dr. B if there was anything more I could do, perhaps dietary changes.

Again, the man between my legs said words I did not want to hear.

“Cut out the alcohol, carbs, and sugar.”

I gripped the sides of the examining table and sat up. Dr. B looked up and our eyes met over the sheet draped over my bent, splayed legs.

“Give them up?! Completely?”

“As completely as you can. If you have to have carbs, go for whole grain. When you drink, limit yourself to one. Refined sugar’s the worst though. You’ve got to stay off the candy and sweets.”

I knew he was right. It wasn’t his fault that I was a sugar fiend, unable to control myself around candy and sweets. I kept stashes everywhere. I had one at home and another at my parents’ place. I knew where other people kept their stashes. I knew the bodegas along my commute that had canisters of single candies by the register: Laffy Taffy, orange slices, Sour Patch kids, Swedish Fish. Every day on my route to and from work, I enjoyed handfuls of pleasure for only fifty cents. Dr. B wanted me to give it all up. I wanted to crush his head between my knees.

I had two options: Take the Diflucan or cut the sugars in my diet. I didn’t want to take Diflucan. It would kill the yeast and fungus that caused my infection, but the die-off of the nasties was known to cause adverse reactions, including mood instability, fevers and vomiting, possibly for weeks while the liver and kidneys processed all the junk. The junk I’d consumed so willingly. I’d fed my infection every time I’d stuffed my face. I also didn’t want to see Dr. B so frequently. He was a nice guy but it was not like we got together to catch up and gossip over lattes. So I lay there prone, naked but for the blush-colored paper gown, and my feet in stirrups, and Dr. B behind the paper sheet draped over my legs, out of sight while he examined my congested Susie.

“Fine. I’ll cut back as much as I can.”

I said the words. It was as simple as that. The words were the easiest part of the choice I’d made.

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Bad hair days.

“Selling hope. That’s all the beauty business is.”
– Comer Cottrell, 1931-2014. Founder of Pro-Line Corporation, which produced hair-care products for African-Americans.

Hope came in a box that was about half the size of a shoe box. On its glossy exterior was a color photo of a little African-American girl about my age, maybe seven or eight years old. Her skin wasn’t dark like a Hershey bar, but more like the Swiss Miss hot coca Mami prepared for me with lots of milk: creamy and smooth. Her teeth were as white as the mini marshmallows I ate straight from the cocoa packet. The little girl was black, but pretty enough to be on that box. Prettiest of all was her hair. Black, like mine, but smooth. Cut just above her shoulders, the ends rounded softly under. She even had bangs, straight over her forehead, ending right above her eyes, the ones that looked right at me from her smiling face on the box. Did she smile to taunt me, triumphant that she, a little black girl, una negrita, had what I wished, hoped, and prayed for? I decided that no, she smiled at me precisely because she understood my want and was willing to share the magic that would make my wish come true.

It was the late 1970s and the box held hope for good little girls like me with bad hair. My hair wasn’t as bad as the black girls who lived in my projects. Their wooly hair, pasa as Mami called it, had to be twisted, coiled or braided, and weighed down with multicolored beads or ponytail holders, so many mini plastic bits that click-click-clicked when they jumped double Dutch.

My hair was better than that, but there were no black girls in Most Precious Blood, so my hair was the worst in my Catholic school. There was only one other little Latina girl there; her family was from Mexico and she had black hair as glossy and straight as little Cindy Yun’s hair. The three of us were the exotic ones, not Eastern European nor Italian nor Irish, our faces different among those framed by brown and blond shades of hair that was straight, some wavy, a few even curly, but pretty curls like Cindy Brady. Even the two other different little girls had hair that moved in the slightest breeze, strands too limp and textureless to hold barrettes. My hair was so thick and tightly kinked that hair pins were lost and held hostage in there until my mother performed the weekly Saturday hair taming ritual.

The ritual began in the early morning, when mami dressed my hair with mayonnaise (rumored among Puerto Rican ladies in the know to have hair-smoothing powers), which I had to let sit for one hour before she rinsed my head with super cold water. Then she lathered and scoured my head with a vengeance that didn’t expel any kink-causing demons from my hair but did threaten to dislocate my head from my little girl neck. She located and disentangled all knots with a fine-toothed comb before another cold rinse, followed by an application of conditioner, a final cold rinse, and then she wrung my hair like the string mop to remove excess water before setting.

It was punishment to be handled so roughly but also to be confined indoors until my hair was dry. If I complained enough, my mother would tell me Vete, go outside then and stop being so malcriada. But how could I be seen with my hair set in giant rollers just like the older ladies at the Laundromat? The little black girls who never let me double Dutch would have certainly beaten me up. So I sat alone in front of the television in our fourth-floor apartment, and could sometimes hear the click-click-clicking from outside.

But there was hope in the box. Kiddie Kit hair relaxer for children, $4.99 at Genovese Drug Store. Such a happy day when I arrived home from school and saw the box on my dresser. Mami had bought it while I was at school and it was an unexpected surprise to find Kiddie Kit next to my music box that held the twirling blond ballerina and the glass-bead rosary I received for my first Holy Communion. The Kiddie Kit box held magic that could accomplish what was beyond the power of prayer. How much of my allowance had been spent to light votive candles at Most Precious Blood Church and yet I still had bad hair? Perhaps it had been a sin to pray for vanity, but I didn’t care. I wanted to be a pretty girl and the secret was to have pretty hair.

The church could keep my quarters and dollar bills. Mami had brought the magic home for $4.99. For the first time, I couldn’t wait for Saturday. With good hair, it wouldn’t matter that the little black girls wouldn’t let me play with them. I would be good enough to play with the pretty girls. I would be a Puerto Rican princess with smooth hair. The magic was in the box.

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Broken but brilliant.

broken glassThe men walked, three and four abreast. They avoided the crates of uncovered bread and small mangoes piled along the curb, but did not yield to my approach. One’s shoulder almost got me in the eye as they plowed past, their progress and foreign jabbering uninterrupted by my presence on the street. Incense burned at the doorway of the shop to my right. The smoke cut through the smell of cumin, car exhaust and body odor in the air. The store and restaurant signs were in the same unfamiliar language spoken by the crowds around me. I looked toward the intersection ahead and at the green sign attached to the light post on the corner. The white letters read Newark Avenue.

Newark Avenue? I knew I was not in the city of Newark. I reached inside my shoulder bag. No map. Shit. I’d left it… home? Likely. And home in relation to Newark Avenue was… somewhere. It couldn’t be far. I hadn’t been outdoors for very long. I had just been walking along, heading…. somewhere. Then realized I did not know where I was, from where I’d come, or to where I was headed.

It always happens without warning. I’m usually prepared: I carry a map or recite in my head the streets I pass so I’ll recognize the names on my return trip. But I hadn’t had an episode in a few weeks. Confidence led to carelessness, which landed me on Newark Avenue without a map or string of street names that could get me back home.

Those moments of getting lost are one of the many frustrations of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. One moment I’m walking along Labert Avenue, wondering what else I need from Rite Aid in addition to antiperspirant; the next, I turn onto Newark Avenue and suddenly I’m wondering where I am, whether I’m in a foreign or home environment, and if a red traffic light means stop or go.

Dr. S assures me that I am not crazy; I am just disassociated from reality at those moments. That sounds like crazy to me, but she’s the professional and I trust her, so I go with it. I call them “episodes” and Dr. S has explained they’re in response to a stressor. Sometimes the trigger is obvious: a hearse parked outside a church reminds me of my baby boy’s funeral, the sound of small children in a park reminds me I’m a barren monster. Other times the episodes come from seemingly out of nowhere. At those time, I feel defeated, like I’ve made no progress in the past six years and I really believe that just being alive is a stressor. Crazy has me firmly in its grip.

I’ve been the “smart one” all my life. My smarts are the one thing I always had going for me. They were my strongest currency that got me out of the projects and into new worlds that were scary and sometimes unwelcoming, but I knew I was smart enough to get anywhere. So who am I now if my mind fails me? There are days that I view my brain as my biggest traitor.

I can’t control my mind. I try to control how I react to my episodes. That was the main inspiration for my “flip it” project that I began in the summer: I turn negatives into positives. I look at the shitty as an opportunity to react in a way that is not frustration, dejection, crumpled defeat or burning rage. This is not an easy task for a glass-always-empty kind of woman like me, but the alternatives are not appealing. I could have cried hysterically that day on Newark Avenue. I certainly was on the verge of tears. I could have stood there, paralyzed by fear, snot running into my mouth as I tried to ask someone for directions to I didn’t know where. Most people might have ignored me. Maybe someone would have tried to be helpful and called a police officer, which would have sent me into full panic mode, likely earned me a trip in a police car or ambulance and landed me in a hospital, the place where I would feel the most panicked and terrorized. Not a good scene.

I thought of Carrie on “Homeland.” She’s broken too; but she’s also brilliant. Her safety systems have failed her. She’s been betrayed by her supports. Carrie ends up in unexpected situations, unfamiliar terrain, but she blends into the scene, puts on a head scarf, navigates the moment by the seat of her pants, relying on her smarts, trusting her intuition and what she knows that she knows.

That day on Newark Avenue, I decided I was on an adventure. My mission was of high importance and classified, a secret even to me. A map would have been a liability if I was detained and questioned. I had to walk all business-as-usual to avoid detection. I wasn’t in the city of Newark or even aware of what city I was in at that moment, but decided it was exotic and foreign. How much more exciting it was to think of myself as a covert operative, and what a let down it was when I turned onto Kennedy Boulevard and the episode ended. I returned to the reality of another day in Jersey City, on my way to Rite Aid to save two dollars on Arm & Hammer antiperspirant.

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Just regular.

comadresThe number in attendance was not huge. I looked around the modest-sized auditorium; it was slightly more than half full early on a Saturday morning. But what mattered most was our presence.

The third annual Comadres & Compadres Latino Writers Conference was held on Saturday, September 27 at Medgar Evans College in Brooklyn. It was my first time at the conference. It was also one of the few times in my life when I’ve attended a professional event where I was not the only brown person. I’m a writer, a woman, and Puerto Rican, so I’m often in the minority due to one or all of those identifiers. As an undergrad at an elite New England college, I felt like the token cocoa-colored model who might appear on every eighth page of the J. Crew catalog. I was the face of diversity in grad school and during my corporate career days: I was usually the only non-white, non-male available to feature in promotional literature about inclusive environments. Being a writer is a lonely gig, and even at residencies, retreats, and seminars, I’ve often been the sole writer of color.

My experience was different on Saturday morning in that auditorium in Brooklyn. I was part of a “we”: no longer a lonely singular, but a member of a community. We didn’t all look the same, share the same mother land, write in the same genre, or speak Spanish with the same fluency (or at all), but we were all of a kind. For me, that means the kind of people who know about playing la loteria, praying to la virgen, or having taken sancocho leftovers to school for lunch. The kind who get references to telenovelas, chisme, and time in el campo without need for translation. The kind who understand about being American, yet being asked if you speak English or being told to go back to where you come from. And we were all the kind who are driven to tell the stories of our experiences from our particular point of view.

It was a relief to not be the only Latina in the room. When I was much younger, those situations made me feel lonely, self-conscious, and that my difference was a liability. I’ve been spoken to loudly and slowly, sometimes not at all, which made me feel misunderstood and out of place. The few times I spoke in those alienating situations, people were surprised and marveled, “Wow, you don’t sound Puerto Rican”, like not fulfilling stereotypical expectations was my greatest achievement.

I knew that being well-spoken and being Puerto Rican were not mutually exclusive, but I began to believe the hype: maybe I was always the only Puerto Rican in those classrooms, auditoriums, and corporate offices of my youth because I was exceptional. Maybe I was better, good enough to be admitted into more exclusive circles where I was recognized with glossy plaques, framed certificates, and pats on the head. Those inanimate acknowledgements were shitty companions that only ever made me feel lonelier: too good to be with “regular” Puerto Ricans, but not good enough to be just regular.

At The Las Comadres conference, I was surrounded by people, mostly women, who were each pretty damn exceptional. Writers, like me, who are committed to their craft, and try to find homes for their work and their professional ambitions—and we are an ambitious bunch of mujeres. I listened to writers pitch novels, children’s books, self-help guides, memoirs, and story collections that deserve to be in mass market bookstores on the shelves of their genre, not just on the “Latina/o” shelf. I attended a panel led by Meg Medina who reminded us that when writing, it’s expected to produce a lot of shit before getting to the good stuff. I sat at Esmeralda Santiago’s table for lunch (!!!!) and had a straightforward, down-to-earth sharing with her and the other amazing Latinas at the table about how to stay motivated, the structure and fluctuations of the writing life, our dreams, and our fears and frustrations.

There were eight of us at that table. There were likely less than 200 attendees at the conference. But like I said, it wasn’t the number that mattered. The important thing was that we were all there, together. No one was any better or any more exceptional than anyone else. I certainly wasn’t. We were all just regular, doing what we do, what all writers do, Latina/o or not.

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Battle gear.

bad ass jeansYesterday on the Brian Lehrer show, Emily Spivack spoke about Worn Stories, her new book that examines how clothes are more than just a fashion statement. Clothes reveal something about who we are and how we wish to present ourselves to the world. The book features photos of public figures accompanied by brief personal essays that explain why a particular personal item of clothing holds deep significance. Lehrer invited listeners to call and share their own stories about an article of clothing they intend to keep forever.

I often refer to my clothes as “vintage from my own closet” because many items have been with me longer than my husband. I have a tendency toward keeping clothes past their prime, and wondered what I might insist be packed to accompany me to the nursing home in my later years. I decided it would be my 30-year-old jeans.

The jeans themselves are not 30 years old. I bought them as a 30th birthday present to myself thirteen years ago. Gap, low rise flare stretch jeans, size 4 ankle, dark rinse once-upon-a-time. I paid full price. For that reason alone I would hold onto the jeans. Gotta make sure I get every last penny of use out of them. It felt indulgent at the time, buying something that was not on sale for myself, but who knew how much longer I’d be a size 4 or be able to wear something current without looking ridiculous? I was turning 30 after all. There was a lot of unknown in the years ahead.

One of the things John and I had planned for our 30s was starting a family. It took six years to achieve a pregnancy that went beyond the first trimester. I remember keeping track of the days after a positive pregnancy test, each one a triumphant step closer to a day when I’d not be able to squeeze into my size 4s. I also remember slipping right back into my jeans after losing pregnancies or after unsuccessful rounds of fertility treatments. My relationship with my jeans was finally interrupted when I became pregnant with Liam in 2007. I began 2008 in the final stretch of pregnancy, sure my size 4s would stay folded in the closet for the rest of the year.

Stillbirth was not something John and I had planned for. Who does? It’s the subject that’s not on the prenatal class agenda. It doesn’t get a dedicated chapter in the pregnancy guides and it’s not common to find a dedicated guide on the shelves of the bookstore. But stillbirth happens. It happened to us. We had arrived at the hospital on a February evening, me in labor and giddy. We left less than 36 hours later with Liam’s death certificate.

We lost more than our baby boy. In the immediate hours, days, weeks after I left the hospital, I increasingly lost the ability to function. Kitchen cabinets, chairs, and my own body were the victims of my hair-trigger rage. I was scared and paranoid: Danger pursued me at all times. I panted constantly, like a dog sensing distant thunder. I was detached from reality, forgetful, often lost in my own building and neighborhood. My body was a trauma site. I wanted to be rid of it, and of my life.

Family and friends were at a loss for words. What was there to say? But they were a regular presence in our home. Uncles and aunts stopped by unexpectedly and regularly with still-warm cookies, homemade pasta sauce, or freshly made soup. My in-laws visited and stayed often, washed countless dishes, took me to lunch out of state, and helped me with crosswords that confounded me. Younger cousins and nieces shared stories of school project triumphs, and knocked each other on the head for telling lame jokes.

My best friend took days from work to be with me. I remember one visit in particular: I stood at the stove and she sat at the kitchen peninsula, watching me.

“It’s good to see you wearing your old clothes so soon.”

The morning of her visit, I had slipped on my Gap size 4 low rise flares without thought. At that point, it had been just over one month since I’d left the hospital. So much had happened and changed, yet the jeans fit like I’d never been pregnant. In my head, I was many things: broken, a monster, crazy, a failure, grief-stricken. But standing there in my kitchen in my old jeans, I was also still Nancy. Nothing, not even I, would be the same again, but the jeans were that first bridge that connected where I’d come from and where I was – and gave me hope that I could reconcile both and recover as a new woman.

My 30-year-old jeans are showing greater signs of wear: they’re whiskered white the length of the seams; the hems are rubbed raw from boots; and the denim in the crotch will soon need patching. I’ll prolong their life through judicious and gentle washing, and air drying. I will wear them, or as much of them that is still left in a few decades, as I’m wheeled into my room at the home. Those jeans remind me I’m bad-ass. I kick ass and when I get kicked and knocked down, I get back up. I’m well past 30 and getting more tattered. Life keeps tearing at me, but I’m a warrior. And those size 4s have been my battle gear.

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Caviar dreams and golden toilets.

I’ll see anything with Philip Seymour Hoffman. The same goes for Liam Neeson, though for different reasons. Both are fine actors, but Liam Neeson is quite fine. He was the reason I paid full price to see “Non-Stop” in a theater. Philip Seymour Hoffman was the reason my husband B and I ventured to the Brooklyn Heights Cinema to see “A Most Wanted Man,” based on the John le Carre novel.

It was a rare summer Saturday that was free of graduations, weddings, birthdays, and barbecues. B and I had decided to indulge with brunch at a diner, a stroll along the Brooklyn Promenade, lite cinematic fare at an independent movie house, and a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. I am the ultimate multi-tasker, my own worst and relentless task master, and I enjoyed the slowed pace of the day—though it may not have been apparent from the way I panned everything. I’m a glass-half-empty type of woman, so that’s how I roll. I loved watching the easy mix and interaction of humans and canines along the promenade, but the walkway was too short. B and I did a U-turn at the promenade’s end at Pierrepont Place and walked back to where we had entered at Middagh Street. I hate out-and-back loops.

The rain and showers predicted that morning never happened, so B and I crossed the bridge post-movie. The sky was slightly overcast and the slight breeze refreshing in the diffused sunlight. My absorbent fro grew to four times the size of my head from the lingering humidity. Foreigners and locals were awed by the views that had fueled so many of my past runs across the bridge: Liberty Island and Governor’s Island; the iconic skyline of lower Manhattan; the river and its traffic of ferries, sightseeing cruises, sail boats, kayaks, and speed boats. The bridge crossers all around us were marveled but not moved: they stopped short for group photos and selfies, clogged the walkways and bike paths, and interrupted purposeful bridge-crossers like me.

“A Most Wanted Man” was not the type of novel I’d read, but B and I both enjoyed the intriguing, if un-challenging, plot and action. Philip Seymour Hoffman did a fine enough job as the stock male lead typical of those macho books and films: the roguish intelligence (or law enforcement or military) guy who’s scarred by a past mission where his unintended error cost lives. He’s fucked by guilt and the powers that be, and can never forget that one mistake. He might seem cold, distant, an asshole. He’s hard drinking, chain smoking, and inaccessible, but it’s a shield against getting hurt again. Underneath it all, our hero is the one loyal, true guy who will never fuck you.

It was so predictable, I said to B. I could write such boiler plate plots while I sat on the toilet. I thought about it. I could have myself a really nice toilet if I wrote the type of mass market novels that sold at CVS and airports and were adapted for films. I could have a custom-made writing chair, ergonomically correct and designed to accommodate my petite proportions. It could look like a toilet if that’s what I ordered. I could muse about chasing scoundrels, downing whiskeys, and avenging wrongs while I sat on my throne, positioned before the full-glass wall of my study in our floor-through, top-floor residence in one of those fancy glass buildings all around and below us. I could get B his own custom-made toilet with a heated seat and a motion-activated night light for nocturnal trips to the throne. If that life was so easy to attain, why didn’t I go for it?

I know what it’s like to write just for the money. That kind of life gave me daily diarrhea. Financial services had been a lucrative gig for a writer before the economy tanked, but there was no fulfillment in trying to make tax law sound sexy or forensic accounting services morally essential and redemptive. During those years, I had separated myself into worker-drone Nancy, who completed her work more than competently, and real-me Nancy, who shrank daily. The day worker-drone Nancy was downsized because my “role did not align with the strategic goals of the organization,” real-me Nancy was just a shell of someone I used to be. I had invested so many years writing about things I didn’t give a shit about for people who didn’t give a shit about me. I made some money, but I lost myself.

Six years ago I received a literal second chance at my one life. That’s a rare opportunity, a true gift. I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons. Walking on that bridge with B, I knew exactly why I didn’t choose the seemingly easy-money routes. I’m many things: grumpy, pessimistic, crotchety, cheap, impatient, unforgiving. It’s humiliating to acknowledge those things about myself, but I’ve also learned to be grateful. I try to live a life that appreciates, values, sometimes even celebrates, the second chance I’ve been granted. Even a glass-half-empty woman like me thinks there’s got to be a reason for that.

It would have been nice to get B that heated toilet seat. It was fun to dream about those thrones, but I doubt either of us will live poorer lives without them.

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