Relentless Files — Week 42

“I wonder why it’s so hard for me to acknowledge myself. To love myself enough to say: Look at what you’ve done. Be proud. Own it. You did that. You.”

Vanessa Martir's Blog


*An essay a week in 2016*

We all want to be seen. Every single one of us. Ad there’s nothing wrong with that. Absolutely nothing.


There is probably no better or more reliable measure of whether a woman has spent time in ugly duckling status at some point or all throughout her life than her inability to digest a sincere compliment. Although it could be a matter of modesty, or could be attributed to shyness—although too many serious wounds are carelessly written off as “nothing but shyness”—more often a compliment is stuttered around because it sets up an automatic and unpleasant dialogue in the woman’s mind.

If you say how lovely she is, or how beautiful her art is, or compliment anything else her soul took part in, inspired, or suffused, something in her mind says she is undeserving and you, the complimentor are an idiot for thinking such…

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You Always End Up Where You Need to Be

I’m writing this from our new apartment in Riverdale. We live right across from Van Cortlandt Park. Not only one of the most beautiful green spaces in New York City, but also – and we’re finding this out now – quietest. The only sounds we often hear are cars driving along Broadway, the occasional sirens or trucks and crickets. That’s it.

It’s a far cry from Northern Manhattan, where we lived most our lives (for Luis it’s been his entire life) and where we thought our kids were going to grow up, too.

When we first moved out here, we were scared, already plotting a way to sell our place and move back home.

“We’ll do two year – tops,” I told Luis, already skimming Zillow and Trulia for apartments near our old place again. Luis nodded in agreement. He more than anyone – at first – didn’t give up on that dream.

I, on the other hand, struggled with what was it that we were leaving behind. Yes, our worn out dream of our kids growing up where we did, but other than that – what else was there? Our old hangout spots were gone (more on this later), along with several longtime friends and some of our most loved ones. Although my mom and sister-in-law still live nearby, my mother-in-law passed away several years ago, and Luis’ other siblings were dispersed and tending to their own families. Even my best friend, who introduced us and lived in our neighborhood way before me, had left over two decades before. She never looked back.

Maybe we should do the same?

Despite physically living in Inwood, we were tired of so much of what was going on – the high rents, noise, landlords. Plus, our family was growing fast. Prior to moving, we spend over three years looking for a place in Inwood. Three years. Everything was either too expensive or too small, and nothing was ever in between.

So we did what a lot of people in our shoes are doing these days – and moved to the Bronx.

We found our home rather unexpectedly. We made an offer on one place nearby in Riverdale, but were shot down after a brief negotiation round. We were devastated. Three years of looking in Inwood, plus a shot down offer makes for a desperate situation. We were taking turns seeing new up to four apartments each week. “The next place one of us sees – that we like – we make the offer. It doesn’t matter if the other person doesn’t see it.”

It sounded crazy, and fortunately I’m with a man that supports and actually loves my crazy, so we went with the plan assuming that the quicker we jumped on a place the higher our chances.

Well, it worked for us.

Luis saw our apartment early January last year and made an offer. He called me quickly. “I really like this one for us,” he said. “You think I’ll like it?” I said, feeling crazy when I asked. “I think so,” he replied. “I already know where you can put your desk to write.”

“So make an offer,” I said. “I already did,” he said.

We closed nine to ten months later (passed the board review with flying colors) – and that was when I first saw our home.

I was so nervous prior and convinced seeing it before closing would jinx the process somehow. I trusted that Luis knew me well enough to pick a home that defined us and my working corner.

When we closed, signed all paperwork and got the keys, we literally sped to our new home. “You ready?” he asked. I took a deep breath: “Yes.”

Boy – did Luis deliver. It needed a few repairs, but the layout and yes – the corner he picked for my desk – were perfect. We completely moved in several months later, after painting, furnishing the space and the kids wrapped up school.

My desk window overlooks our neighbor’s terrace, surrounded with plants and art – very much how our terrace is evolving with my mini garden. The other neighbor below has colorful lights and candles draped along the window and a beautiful outdoor patio set. Another neighbor’s window has a Buddha statue with some other wooden figures, similar to the crystals and globes I have looking out of our window.

Our neighbors – I now see – are truly a reflection of where we are now in life. I could glance across and notice so many similar touches to their terrace and homes as ours.

These days, with months decorating and bringing warmth to our home, we don’t go back as often. We’re embracing a different future ahead; one that’s slowly really becoming where we need to be. Sort of. Maybe. I still haven’t unsubscribed to Trulia and Zillow yet.


Taking Inventory of the Year

I always count down the remaining months of the year after the school-year for the kids begins.

With less than a handful of holidays left, the days run down quickly and busily; that before you know it, you’re counting down to the new year.

I realized shortly after my son’s birthday that since before his birth, I hadn’t done much of what I wanted, and although I promised myself I would “pick up where I left off” (whatever that means), I haven’t picked up much of anything. I’ve barely picked up my ass to exercise.

So I did what any ambitious, crazy woman would do – and signed up for an accountability project a friend created.

(You know that whole: “Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are…” I take that very seriously and even try to emphasize that with my true-Libra teen, who is constantly making “friends” left and right, yet often forget their names.)

The accountability project asked that a group of us – approximately 5 women – select a series of goals that we want to complete by the end of the year.

I picked several items that I’ve sort of been working, or mostly pushing further back down the pipeline on my list. The first – which is the easiest, yet most pressing – is that I create a timeline for a story, brainstorm topics for it and do the research for a story, which I will then submit to an MFA program.

It sounds simple enough, except that I’m very scared – of not doing it.

Because if I can’t do it now, then when and why hold off much longer? And those are questions I don’t really have an answer to, and I don’t want my 75-year-old self to look back on this point now and continue wondering the same.

So the pressure and goal-crushing is on, friends. Wish me luck!

Writing Prompt: Do you have any writing goals you want to complete before the end of the year? What’s stopping you?


Don’t Forget the Music

“She plugged the alarm-clock radio, that once belonged to her husband, into an old outlet inside her mom’s old kitchen and merged the memories to an old Juan Luis Guerra tune. Who would’ve thought; it was the perfect melody.”

I’ve been thinking about this character for a long time, but very few things made her real to me, until I wrote listening to Juan Luis Guerra’s “Ojalá Que Llueva Café.”

It could’ve been the thought of rain, coffee, poverty – or the sweet trumpets that carried his words throughout the song.

Whatever it was, she suddenly appeared in a warm yellow, knee-length cotton nightgown, as if she’d been waiting all along to be asked to dance. There she was, this half-spirited mom of three, ready to start anew in her homeland. Yes, her husband had passed away, but she was a dancer, I thought. Or at least had always wanted to be. Like me, she became her best self with music and dancing.

Her hair was clipped back, except for a few frizzed curls tugged behind her ears. She hasn’t washed her hair in days, because she was reserving the warm water for her kids, who still hadn’t gotten used to the campo’s quick showers. It would be months, she thought – maybe years – before they could thank her for this. She hoped.

But at that moment, the images of aguacero de yuca y té, that Juan Luis Guerra was singing about, made her know they would.

Although I listen to music all the time while writing, often jazz and instrumental or ballads to slow down my thinking process (and dive into certain angles of my writing with the pace of songs), I think my character was just ready to get up and dance this time around.

Maybe she loved this particular caribbean tune, I thought, inside her now caribbean setting, which blended beautifully with memories of my own upbringing (summer in D.R.). She must have thought, “Now you’re getting me,” after I wrote about how her husband passed and she felt the need to return to something familiar to her, and how nothing felt quite as natural as her own mothering back in the country.

I first thought of this storyline about four years ago, before Max, when I wanted to move to the Dominican Republic. I thought of my mom, and how different her life would’ve played out, had she moved back after divorcing my dad. She was a teacher there and more likely to find a fulfilling life. But her new dreams were here, it seemed – the possibilities in New York were more enchanting. I wanted to move after struggling to find our own place, with the rising cost of rents in New York City, it seemed impossible. I walked by a realtor space that had a flier for homes in Santo Domingo for $40K. It was four times less than what we were willing to pay for a place here, plus promise of a yearlong summer. It struck me how I think of “returning home” to a place I only visited during the summer; but I wanted to explore that more through a different character.

The storyline disappeared for me as we settled with a newborn now toddler, only to return last year when a friend packed her stuff and moved her family to the motherland. I don’t know the specifics to my friend’s move, but realized then that the heart of that story and character was still somehow beating for an escape.

I’m still plugging away, discovering what else there is to her. Discovering more ways to continue writing her story. In the meantime, here’s a bit I found about the roots of our music, published over two decades ago. 

[PROMPT: Is music instrumental in your writing process?]

“African rhythms are the heart of all Caribbean music. Almost every island culture has a root music that is almost unchanged from its original African source. In Cuba it’s the music of the African religion ‘santeria’; in Haiti it’s ‘voodoo’ music; in Trinidad it’s called ‘Shango.’ Over the past 400 years, African musical roots have intertwined with European, Native American and even Asian traditions. Today’s Caribbean music is diverse-constantly changing and often confusing.” | Black Enterprise, May 1991


Finding Time to Read

Reading is essential for all writers. It serves as inspiration, motivation and yes – boredom-busters.

Truth is, if we’re not writing, then we should be reading, even when we don’t feel like it.

But when you have kids, this advice it a little easier said than done. If you’re anything like me, then it becomes near impossible said than done. There are days when I can barely keep my eyes open to wash the dishes, let alone read a newspaper or magazine article or the kids’ bedtime books.

But because writing is what I do, I know it’s essential for me to remain sharp – and reading is the only form of exercise that keeps me aware of what I should be – or not – doing.

So here’s how I keep my reading skills on point, and not fall asleep while I’m at it.

  1. Set Reminders. I use apps to remind me to read. Coach Me is a good one, although a simple calendar reminder would serve the same purpose.
  2. Make a Pile of Books. I’m honestly reading three books at the same time. Sure, I forget what I’m reading and I’ll reread chapters, but it keeps me disciplined – and entertained. If I’m feeling like an easy read, I’ll pick up a magazine. But if I think I can dig in deeper, then I’ll read a Spanish book. I also have classics handy for when I want to bring something creative out of me. Right now, I have the “Invisible Man” on my nightstand.
  3. Don’t Keep Track. I know this defeats the purpose, but honestly, as long as you’re reading, and finishing magazine articles and books, it doesn’t matter how many pages per day it took you to get there. I used to keep track, but then got frustrated when I would get interrupted and forgot to set a timer or whatever other “mom thing” happened to remind why I shouldn’t have a strategy to read in the first place.
  4. Keep It Fun. Always be sure to have fun when you’re reading. This shouldn’t feel like school, and if it does, then maybe take a break and just write for a few days. See where your literature brain wants to take you.
  5. You Will Fall Asleep. There will be days when you will probably put yourself to sleep. I’ve done it many, many times. Especially when I’m reading to my kids. I’m now getting into the habit of reading to them what I’m reading. The teen complains, but eventually deals with it. There’s only so much “Mom, this is boring!” she can do, before realizing I’m simply enjoying a book and there’s nothing she can do about it. My two-year-old just likes the sound of my voice and still doesn’t quite understand the difference between Arthur and the latest The Sun magazine.

The point is that what applied before, when we were in elementary, middle or high school, reading, because we had all the time in the world, applies to now – when we feel like we have none of it.

Because it’s still the same hours in the day, and although a little grayer, we should still have that passion for it.

3 Things To Do This Weekend: The Kids’ Edition

Despite the weather’s back-and-forth between snow, rain and sunshine, this weekend should be all about getting outside to play with your kids. Here three tips, books and random ideas to get you going.

hank-aaron-things-to-do copy

Batter Up! Baseball season started this week, which means it’s the perfect time to get a few tickets to a game or play your own ballgame at the park. Need some more inspiration? It’ll be forty-two years – on April 8 – that baseball legend, Hank Aaron, broke Babe Ruth’s record with his 175th home run. It remained untouched until 2007, when Barry Bonds hit his 756th homer.

Jurassic Park – Sort Of. The weather has been all over the place, which means local parks have been feeling it, too. Explore the wet soil, plants and local waters to see if you notice anything different. Take pictures and talk about the colors. Colors are often key in determining how nature is changing.

Show Them They’re Safe. You probably have walked around your neighborhood a million times. Maybe even have a specific route you like best. Show your kids around, regardless of their age, and point to things that will allow them to connect better to their community. An old light post, the bright pizza place or the funny colored building a few blocks down. It’s never too early to familiarize your kids with what’s around them, what makes their streets  special and how to always find their way home.


Easier Said Than Done #Quotes

Trees in Van Cortlandt Park #NYC, Fall 2015

There are quotes and sayings that make you want to throw a book at someone.

Just make sure it isn’t your own, or another good/favorite title.

Like the “stop thinking already” quotes, as if you could just press a button to stop the random thoughts that, that—

“Stop thinking, and end your problems.” 


“If you try to know it, you already departed from it.”


Maybe there’s something else lost in translation. 

Or maybe it’s that you’re so deep and close, you really can’t see the forest for the trees.

And quotes can sometimes add that distance when you need it. Those words that we – as writers – know so well and the relationship we have to the craft.

“At the moment you are in awe of all there is about life that you don’t understand, you are closer to understanding it all than at any other time.”

Jane Wagner