A Year Ago

2013-05-17 07.07.17I woke up in Ardmore, Oklahoma. It was raining outside, but that wouldn’t stop us. My dad, my daughter, and I were headed to Houston that day. We had about six hours to go. We cashed in on the continental breakfast downstairs, and then made our way to the highway. I had driven the night before from Kansas to Oklahoma, so my dad was going to start today. I would take us into Houston though.

The day before, the movers came. It still felt too real. I’d seen them pack up our Kansas City apartment into a moving truck in a matter of hours. They swept up the boxes I had carefully packed for weeks. Every couple of nights I’d take out a box after E had gone to sleep and I’d pack it. Books. Winter clothes. Dissertation reading. Little bits of our life up until now.

He was in Houston, Seattle, Los Angeles, Oakland, New York. He was making the rounds with the Astros. I was in Kansas City, tying up the last few ends that were left. I said good byes for the both of us. But you’re never ready to go.

Except Oklahoma. We had our breakfast, we packed our overnight bags, and we got in the car. I sat in the passenger seat, while my dad drove us into Texas. E sat in the back, coloring in a Dora travel coloring book, a present from a friend who said I should give it to her when we got in the car. I took pictures. I sang. I checked for radio stations. I thought about Houston.2013-05-17 10.24.08

When we got to Dallas we were ready for lunch. We stopped at a fried fish joint, ordered through metal bars, and took our styrofoam boxes out to the car. We drove to a shady parking lot close by, a local library branch, and we ate. We’re in Texas, I thought. We made it to Texas.

We still had a while to go. Houston was about four hours away. The drive seemed endless. Not much to look at when you get on the highway. We drove and we drove, and we hit Houston right at 5.

A year ago, I met Houston and it greeted me with traffic. It was a Friday, and I was headed into the city right at the height of rush hour. Now, I know to stay away from 610 at 5 in the afternoon.

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In the (writing) process

"postcard-33" by Flickr user smoothfluid, CC-BY-2.0

“postcard-33″ by Flickr user smoothfluid, CC-BY-2.0

Last week I attended Austin Kleon‘s reading at Brazos Bookstore here in Houston, TX. Kleon is the author of Steal Like an Artist and, more recently, Show Your Work! Steal Like an Artist is a breezy-but-engrossing read. I finished it quickly, but I often found myself stopping to think about the observations Kleon shared about the creative process. They were particularly useful for thinking through the writing process.

I haven’t read Show Your Work! yet, but after attending Kleon’s reading I am eager to start it. It’s about why you should share your work in progress as well as the process. With the postcards project, I’m trying to be more mindful of sharing my creative process. I want to get input on what I’m doing but I also want to find readers to help me think through my questions and present me with new questions to consider.

Today I thought of these questions regarding postcards:

  • Who makes postcards?
  • Who sells/gives away postcards?
  • Who delivers postcards?
  • Who receives postcards?

I’ve been thinking about the postcard as object a lot, and this morning I considered it might be useful to also think about the people behind the postcards.

I also created a Pinterest board for my book research. If you’re into that sort of thing, here it is.

 

Writing As I Go Along:

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“Mystery Writers” by Flickr user Nana B. Agyei, CC-BY-2.0

I know writing gurus strongly suggest you write every day at the same time, but lately that’s not working for me. I sit (or stand, as of this weekend) at my desk at some point during the day, something comes to mind and I write it. When I was working in an office from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm and had to finish my dissertation, I would wake up early and get work done. But nowadays waking up early doesn’t work for me.

It’s not an ideal system. In fact, I stress about my less-than-ideal system sometimes. The writing keeps coming (I’ve been blogging here bi-weekly and I’ve even gotten back to pitching), but it’s hard for me to rely just on the idea that writing will happen. That it does happen. That lately I’m feeling the urge to write more often. That I read articles and I feel like I have something to write about them. That I’m reading more and thinking about writing more and that writing begets writing.

I also think a lot about where my writing is headed. I blogged some time ago about how I needed projects to keep me moving or if not I felt aimless—like my writing wasn’t going anywhere. And now, I am post-ac in every sense of the word because I compare myself a lot to how things were when I was an academic. I wrote academic writing. It’s the kind of writing I studied. I immersed myself in that kind of writing. Now I don’t write that way anymore.

I feel lighter now that I know I don’t have to (try to) fit into that “academic writer” mold anymore. But the mold was handy, you know? It gave me something to rally against. I was an academic writer or I wasn’t. Either I liked it or I didn’t. Either it worked for me or it didn’t. Eventually I settled into “writer.” I feel okay in that space.

And when I thought that non-fiction (essay writing in particular) writing was more my speed, I felt comfortable about that. I thought, hey, this feels right.

But what does writing an essay mean? I need definitions, for some reason. I need to define myself against something, at least to start. The gray areas feel uncomfortable. For someone who wrote and dealt with those in between spaces so often in her academic writing, I sure feel awkward standing in them. Am I a writer? Am I a blogger? Is it because I know less Latinas doing what I do? Is it because I feel weird about my privilege and I want something else to set myself against? A wall to lean on. Lean in. No, lean on.

So there’s the part about me exploring a new (to me) genre, something that I feel akin to. And then there’s the part of my identity. What I write has implications either way: as a writer and as a person who writes. The subject and the object.

I read a lot of “what is the essay?” or “what is nonfiction?” articles and books as a way to teach myself about writing non-academically. (And by “non-academically” I don’t mean non-scholarly.) I eat them up and read them closely. I probably should just focus on writing, but I seriously can’t turn off this part of my brain: the part that wants to reflect. The article “Leslie Jamison and Roxane Gay: ‘Men are crowned as the gold standard of the genre. It’s gonna change’” gave me life over the weekend because it helped me understand better what I want from my own writing—and where my writing is stalled.

The Salon article consisted in a Q&A with writers Leslie Jamison and Roxane Gay. I wasn’t familiar with Jamison’s work until I read the Q&A but I follow Gay on Twitter and has become one of my favorite authors to follow. Coincidentally, I got to know Gay’s work precisely because I followed her on Twitter. I am now a fan.

Michele Filgate, who led the Q&A, started with this illustration: “A successful essay should draw us in, but also draw us out of ourselves so that we can see the rest of the world around us.” It made me think about how often I write about myself but I don’t think about how my essays are drawing readers out of themselves.

Roxane Gay had some gems that I wanted to pin up on my wall and memorize:

“People are willing to sort of excavate their personal lives for some other reason, for the reader. ”

 

“It’s very similar to why we watch reality television. We want to see people open themselves up and we want to see where they’ll take that openness.”

 

“that kind of inquiry that’s both personal and beyond personal is what makes a really good essay.”

Reading that last quotation made me realize why I probably don’t do as well as I’d like pitching articles with a more journalistic bent or op-ed bent. My writing is quite personal and I sometimes I have trouble seeing the work the essay/topic can do for others. I start writing because I want to understand my world better or see it in a different light, and I share my writing because I hope others will be just as interested.

Another idea Gay put forth:

“But I think we see a lot of unburdening that is not productive, and I don’t really love that. And I also don’t love essays that lack intellectual rigor, which we see quite a lot of, because the machine sort of demands that we, you know, something happens and we respond, and we respond right away.”

This made me think: what is intellectual rigor in essays? The word “intellectual rigor” makes the Imposter Syndrome crop up and makes me cower. What did I do wrong? What must I dig up from my grad school past? How can I bring in this intellectual rigor to my work? Is it in the questions I ask? Do my questions need to delve deeper?

Leslie Jamison gave me much food for thought as well. She pointed out that a for an essay to be effective, “another layer of self-interrogation that has to happen.”

She mentions,

“I think that one of the ways that essays can make things better is by being willing and driven to look at experiences that are very different from the experience of whoever is writing the essay, and I think that can be … you know, it’s a journey for the writer, but it also takes readers on a journey to kind of … attend to other lives, to attend to other experiences of the world … I feel like that works on a specific level like, here, look in this essay at a particular other way the world can be experienced.

I loved that line: “look in this essay at a particular other way the world can be experienced.” Maybe that’s what I’m good at. I wish I could practice using that lens with other stories. But I am very wary of using that lens. I worry about telling someone else’s story wrong. I worry that I’ll get it wrong, or that I’m taking their story and appropriating it. I know others have voices and maybe it’s my role to help them find a space to make their voice heard. or just to listen! And I feel that listening can be in opposition to writing here.

But writing can be a way of listening too, right? I often use my own writing to listen to what’s going on inside myself. Writing becomes a way to take my own temperature, if such a thing is possible. I think where I have the problem is in writing down the stories of others. Where do we draw the line between appropriation and broadcasting? Is there a line?

If you made it this far, dear reader, I’d love to read your thoughts! On writing, on essays, on exploring new genres in your writing…

Collecting postcards

We made it to the end of the museum exhibit, where the gift shop is. There’s always a gift shop at the end of a special museum exhibit. This gift shop contained many items of the MFAH’s Impressionists exhibit we had just walked through, but I wasn’t paying attention to the pens or umbrellas or framed posters. I was looking for a postcard.

Museums are good spots for postcards. Although some postcards may seem very cliché with their idyllic landscapes or 19th century scenes, there usually are some stand outs when there’s a special exhibit in town. Last summer I attended the Punk: From Chaos to Couture exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and got a Debbie Harry and a Patti Smith postcard for my collection.

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I have yet to find a postcard shop in my travels. But aside from there not being a place locally where I can go routinely to pick up postcards (the only place I routinely go for postcards is Strand in New York City), I like certain kinds of postcards. I don’t go for the “Greetings from…!” cards when I buy them…and my friends send me postcards that are particularly kitsch-y. I like people on my postcards. I like unusual scenes; they may be very ordinary scenes or they may be something extraordinary. I like postcards with weird objects on them. The postcard has to be a tad unusual or on the opposite end of the spectrum very UNunsual for me to purchase it. Also, anything with a city scene—especially if it’s New York City—goes into the collection.

So I walked into the gift shop, open to finding a new postcard for my collection. The first thing I saw when I walked in was a stand to my left full of postcards that replicated some of the paintings in the collection. I looked through them and I wasn’t drawn to any of the Impressionist paintings. I picked up some 3d lenticular ballerina postcards because my daughter was drawn to those paintings, and also because they looked fun.

After my eyes ran over the short selection of postcards, they wandered over to the greeting cards stand next to it. There, a particular postcard wrapped in a plastic envelope caught my attention. The eyes were staring right back at me. They wouldn’t blink. I couldn’t look away. They were pretty creepy. Also shiny. This is the postcard, I thought to myself, and  I added it to the stack I was already carrying.

A few days later, I took the plastic off the postcard with the intention of throwing it out before I put the postcard into my collection box. Immediately I realized why the plastic casing: the eyes were a cloth covering the actual postcard, a replica of a Pierre Auguste Renoir painting I didn’t even remember seeing. I probably wouldn’t have picked up the Renoir postcard on its own, but this little treat made all the difference. I was giddy.

I’m still not sure what the cloth with the close-up image of the eyes in the painting is supposed to do. But it’s a pretty cool addition to the collection.

Hair

She was angry at me for combing her hair. Her curls stood out straight from under the comb as I threaded it through her hair. I sprayed detangler, I looked for where her scalp began, and combed again. This time the tangles gave a little more when the comb went through. She cried out again. Ow!

A young(er) Miss E

A young(er) Miss E

My daughter’s curls are not my curls. I mean this literally and metaphorically. My hair is not curly. If anything it’s wavy, when it’s long enough. Now that I have from one to three inches of hair on my head, you can’t tell my hair is curly. I’ve outsmarted my waves in my early thirties.

As a young one

As a young one

I had thick, straight hair as a child. I always had it cut to my shoulders, or at least that’s how I remember it. When I was in 3rd grade, my mom took me to a hair salon and so I could get my hair permed. After that, the only way I’d ever get straight hair was either straightening it or cutting it short. (Unfortunately, I cannot find pictures of me with the perm.)

For years I brought up the perm to my mom again and again, especially during my puberty years. I didn’t blossom during puberty; puberty was more like a root breaking through a cement sidewalk. I grew curves. I sprouted acne pimples. And my hair turned frizzy. Even though my mom’s decision to perm my hair probably had no effect past a few months (after all, your hair grows out eventually) I felt that the years of frizzy hair and salon nightmares had all to do with that. That was the one thing I could figure out that was under someone’s control. Puberty? No one controls that shit.

I call this my "middle school poof." Picture starring my favorite Gap shirt.

I call this my “middle school poof.” Picture starring my favorite Gap shirt.

Whereas all the other women around me seemed to grow into beautiful young ladies, I felt like nothing fit me right. I had to grow into my “big” body and my unruly hair. The mainstream media didn’t help make that easier. My hair was too frizzy, my face was too pimply, and my body was too shapely for the junior’s section that I still thought I could shop at.

Everyone around me seemed to have their hair business together. I didn’t know how to manage my own hair. My mother tried to help by buying conditioners, taking me to the salon, looking at magazines together. I tried everything, but no one could help me understand why the heck I could never look like the girls in class or the ones in my magazines. Letting my hair be in its natural element was not an option for me; I felt like that would make me stand out even more, and I lived on a tropical island. My body was visible enough, and I didn’t want my hair to attract more attention to its awkwardness. But, more importantly, the hair was something I could control. Puberty I couldn’t do anything about. The comments from my classmates I couldn’t do anything about. My hair? that I could at least try to tame. And I tried my hardest to tame it.

I had several awkward haircuts by the time I got to my junior year of high school. But that yearI decided to grow my hair out.

I listened to a lot of rock and roll and grunge, and it seemed like long hair was in. (Secretly, I wanted to cut my hair and dye it all purple, but it would take me years to feel comfortable enough to shear it all off.) I’d had short hair all my life, not because my mom wanted me to have short hair but because when you get frustrated with how your hair looks the first reaction you have is to go to the salon and have someone cut it and make it look better. I wanted to let mine grow out, part of my bohemian chick vibe.

Growing out my hair in high school. Also, chokers were in.

Growing out my hair in high school. Also, chokers were in.

One day my mom told me about this girl she had seen who had gotten blue highlights. I thought this was the coolest thing ever: blue highlights?! Permanent blue highlights, not food dye, the stuff my friends and I used when we wanted to get a little crazy with our hair? And when I asked her if I could get my hair done too, she said yes.

My mom’s always been the coolest.

It was a day-long ordeal—real time though? three hours or so. I went to the salon. They put on a highlighting cap on my head. They bleached my streaks, added the blue, styled it. It’s one of the times I remember feeling good about myself as a high school student.

Now, I know how that sounds: superficial. “She colored her hair to feel good about herself.” But hear me out. When you grow up in a culture that makes you feel that as a Puerto Rican who doesn’t fit the norms of what it means to be beautiful (and therefore valued), the moments where you decide to do something different and embrace it as beautiful, where you decide to make yourself visible on your own terms? That’s powerful. It was for me, at least.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my hair for half of my life, and that moment where I dyed my hair blue might have been the beginning of the healing process. After 11th grade, I grew my hair out, and it almost came all the way down to my waist. I thought it was beautiful…until someone told me I looked old. And when you’re 20, 21, you don’t want people telling you you look “old.” I cut it off. And grew it some more. And cut it off again. And grew it some more. Until I started my PhD. when I decided it was time to cut it short. Super short. Like I can’t tie a ponytail short. Shortly after, I met my husband. He has never known me with long hair.

In Austria during my long long hair phase...

In Austria during my long long hair phase…

And then I cut it short...

And then I cut it short…

And then when I went to grad school I grew it out a bit (and dyed it light brown)...

And then when I went to grad school I grew it out a bit (and dyed it light brown)…

 

And then I went really short...

And then I went really short…

And then i went reaaaaally short...

And then i went reaaaaally short…

Grew it out for a minute (post-baby)...

Grew it out for a minute (post-baby)…

And now I’m back to short

Now, my hair is short, and I feel much happier about it. In fact, even when we were cash-strapped, I almost always tried to make time (and money) to get my hair done. Making my hair look good is a form of self-care. When many other things competed to make me feel bad (the job market, no friends in a new town, postpartum weight gain that no longer counts as postpartum I guess, anxiety about my dissertation), I could look in the mirror and feel a little bit of happiness about how my hair looks.

I’ve been thinking lately about growing it out, growing it all the way out. I love short hair (and I love that I have the facial features to pull it off) but I’ve been thinking about doing something different with it. I’m yearning for a pony tail, for curls, for a side braid, for bangs.

My daughter’s hair has given me much to think about. I think her hair is adorable. She has the tight ringlets I always coveted, the ringlets my cousins have and that my mom had as a child. I know deep down she may someday hate her hair and covet straight hair. I wonder sometimes if she’ll see me straightening my bangs and feel the pang of jealousy that mommy can make her hair go straight easily. My wish for her is that she one day loves her hair as much as I do mine, and that she sees it as a strength instead of a flaw.

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