On Fear. And Poetry. And Boobs

A few days back my poem ON THIS NIGHT got a couple of views. It strikes me as odd when that happens. What makes folks pick a random post you published months ago as the one they want to read? And what makes more than one person check out the random post on the same random day? Anyway, the attention got me to go back and re-read the post myself, upon which I started to write an addendum, typed a few words, then changed my mind.

One, because no one reads an update. Two, because words. Three, because fear. And four, because at the end of it all, there is a lesson to be learned.

I wrote ON THIS NIGHT soon after the death of poet Mary Oliver, one of the women who changed the way I looked at poetry and my surroundings and life in general. She had been on my brain for a few days, and I had gone back and kind of wallowed in her words for a bit. Her poem The Summer Day is a favorite, and the inspiration for ON THIS NIGHT. I, like many others, love the last question she poses the reader: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

ON THIS NIGHT, and the rhythm with which I wrote it, because all of my words come out of my head and hit the page with their own beat, is no The Summer Day. I’m taken aback by how differently it reads from Oliver’s poem. Where The Summer Day is all calm and soothing, my words are full of frenzy and rush, and panic exists right below the surface. There is little room for breath, as if gulping air diminishes the ability to accomplish everything one must before sunrise, as if taking time to reflect is counterproductive. It feels like a race to the end and that final question: What will you do with yourself on this night before the rest of the nights of your life?

I read that final line of ON THIS NIGHT, and suddenly, I was back there. That night. In late January. As I stood in my bathroom mirror, still and breath held, and I felt what my fingertips knew was a lump in my left breast.

That is the power of words. They can take you anywhere in a matter of seconds.

That day in January, the one that inspired ON THIS NIGHT, I had spent whatever free time I could steal doodling an idea I had for a sternum tattoo. Later that night, when I finally got it right, I grabbed a black Sharpie and headed for my bathroom mirror. It was late, my face was scrubbed clean of the day’s dirt, I had worked on my book and finished my nightly yoga routine. A little goofing off in the mirror before my shower was in order.

I should mention right here that I am the daughter of a breast cancer surgeon, so from an early age, breast self-examination has been the norm. My younger sister and I both had laminated examination guides to hang in our showers – feeling up our boobs has never been a thing for us. Once I’d taken off my bra that evening and drawn my tattoo, admired it for a few minutes, and made some changes, I also did a self-exam. Because, why not?

A quick round-and-round of my right side revealed the same as always: nothing changed, same old tissue as the last time I checked. My left though.

I always start at the top, and work my way down and around, my fingers pressing and kneading, pressing and kneading. The movement fast and fluid because I’m well-practiced, having been doing this since a teenager. And because I’m so well-practiced, I felt that lump immediately. Lower left side of my boob, a great place to hide.

My fingers froze and although I made no sound, my brain screamed a long, panicked NO. I felt again. And again. And again. Fingers pressing and kneading fast and faster, as if doing so could make the lump press and knead itself into non-existence. Of course, it did not.

I took a deep breath, said “nah, girl,” and hopped in the shower. It was the only shower I can recall taking where I pretty much left my boobs alone. I was in that place of denial and this-ain’t-happening, and for three beats of time, convinced myself that if I didn’t touch that lump, it didn’t exist.

But here’s the thing about me: I’m a picker. A digger. I need answers. Revelations. And I prefer them immediately. Like yesterday.

So I got out of that let-me-ignore-my-left-boob shower, dried off, coated myself in vaseline like I do every night – I’m telling you, it’s the best moisturizer ever, don’t even think about arguing this with me – and lay down on my floor.

Maybe I imagined it. Maybe it won’t be there. Maybe it was just a fluke.

I counted to ten, and then to twenty, added another ten for good measure, and another ten because I was terrified. Then I pressed. And kneaded. And pressed and kneaded, until I knew the exact dimensions and feel and depth of that lump. Because it was still there. And if it was going to be the death of me, or the moment in my life where everything changed, I was going to know every goddamned detail of it.

I don’t recall how long I lay on my floor that night. I do know that once I got up, I texted a girlfriend and told her what I found. And another. And another. And then my sister, who I didn’t want to tell because she’s the baby in the family and even though most of the time she’s more mature than I could ever dream of being, still, she’s my baby sister. I didn’t want her to worry. She called me right away and we chatted, and then I told my brother, and we chatted, and I made both of them promise not to tell our folks because they were in India, and there was no need worrying them.

Somehow I got myself to sleep that night, woke up the next morning, dropped The Kid off at school, and then headed into the office to call my doctor.

Here’s how you know something is bad: you send your doctor a note on the practice’s online messaging system, and less than three minutes later, her nurse is calling your cell. It was the Thursday before Martin Luther King Day, and even though I hoped I could be fit in that day or Friday for whatever came next, I knew better. They scheduled me for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound for the following Tuesday.

I had a long weekend ahead of me. Three long days of keeping myself busy, making sure I didn’t seem worried about anything because kids pick up on everything, and avoiding all thoughts of death and sickness and the like.

It was during this high-stress time that I wrote ON THIS NIGHT. Or perhaps I wrote it in the aftermath of the long weekend, when I showed up for my exams at NYU-Langone, only to be told they wouldn’t see me since I didn’t come with my films from previous mammograms done at Mt. Sinai, something no one ever thought to inform me was necessary. And so began another waiting period, although not quite as long since Mt. Sinai was kind enough to take one look at my stressed-out face and fit me into their schedule.

By Friday, I knew I was cancer-free. And that I have cysts everywhere, and will need to come back in six months for a follow-up exam, but kudos to me for my self-exam practice. Both my technicians told me to keep up the good work, and not to worry, they didn’t expect anything to change at my next appointment. But damn if those ten days were not some of the most stressful ever.

And damn if the words and rhythm of ON THIS NIGHT don’t center me right back in the midst of that stress every time I read them.

Which is a very long long long way of saying to all the women out there: SQUEEZE YOUR BOOBS, MY LOVES!


Addendum: and this time, I’m actually going to write it – Women, despite what they tell you and would love for all of us to believe, mammograms don’t hurt. At least mine don’t. Even the deeper, diagnostic mammogram didn’t hurt. Yes, you have to stand super still and not breathe and they mash your boobs to oblivion, but none of it hurts. So if you haven’t had your boobs professionally squeezed because you’re afraid it’s going to hurt, trust me, it won’t.


The Damnedest Things

this train reeks of bodies flush with coffee freshly made-up faces 
and the stress of let-me-get-to-my-meeting-on-time
Rush Hour, when earbuds are in
and lips yawn the morning awake and
no one looks at anyone but I see him
legs crossed and head down, jamming a toothpick
between his teeth like he and that wood
got some things to work out, and any other morning
I would cringe and turn inward at all the
personal grooming that should take place
in the privacy of one’s home but instead happens
right out in the open. such is big-city living. and that
nastiness makes my skin crawl, all you mascara-applying,
teeth-picking, fingernail-cutting weirdos.
But not today. Today I watch that man work his teeth,
every in-and-out dip-between-the-gums
dig-out-the-gunk, and I’m mesmerized.
All that grotesquerie is reminiscent of you.
Pieces of rot to make up a deceptive whole.
“No one will ever love you like I do.”
Then the train lurches and wheels screech,
tooth man loses his pick, I grab for the overhead bar.
And you are forgotten.
Balance. Little else matters.


fact: my handwriting is illegible

I’m forever seeing essays and articles about the need to be gentle with oneself, how it’s a vital part of self-care, and so important for women of color to stop and assess, and rest. I discuss it with my therapist all the time. The need to be kinder to myself, more forgiving. Gentle. But gentle has never been in my wheel house. Mostly because I fear it undermines vigilance, and if there’s one thing I’ve been for almost two decades, it’s vigilant. I’ve been a look-over-my-shoulder, watch-every-word kind of girl for so long, my skin has hardened into a thick shield, impenetrable and protective, and seemingly difficult to shed. Then, the other morning happened. I opened my eyes and in the pre-dawn quiet, recalled a bizarre, yet so-very-real and rather poignant dream. A random encounter that reeked of a very particular and persistent love. And instead of being filled with panic – because love and being in love and letting someone love me back induces a panic like no other – I was calm, and all of me felt… gentle. I stayed in bed and kind of reveled in the feeling, wrapped my head around the dream’s details, parsed its pertinent bits. Gentle. I wrote about it, first in verse, and then in my journal, and then in a love note that I signed, sealed, and tossed in the mailbox. Gentle. I read a book, listened to D’Angelo while I painted my toenails, went for a long run, laughed with The Kid. Gentle. I relaxed enough to realize I’m divorced and can no longer be blamed for everything wrong in someone else’s life. Gentle. I downward-dogged. I breathed deep. I smiled lazy. Gentle. I was less vigilant, I was more carefree. I was gentle, and it was lovely. 🖤

A Writer’s Running Log

M: 1 mile / 9:34

T: 1.1 mile / 9:22

W: 3.2 miles / 9:50

Th: 1 mile / 9:45

F: 3.16 miles / 9:32

Sa: 1.5 miles / 8:56

Sun: 6.11 miles / 9:29

I’m heading into week two of my #AtLeastAMileADay challenge, and it should be noted that no one else is doing this with me. I’m challenging myself… which says a lot about the kind of person I am.

Monday: 6:44 am – I’m already looking forward to my mile before Pilates Remix class. I want to see if seven days later, I’ve increased my stamina.

The rest of the week I didn’t make any real time notes. I wound up working from home more than expected, so also ran more than intended. I think by Sunday, I wound up logging around 17 miles. Most of them felt good, except the 3.2 I ran on Wednesday, and mostly because those were on the treadmill.

Running more than a mile on the treadmill is torture for me.

All of it though, whether on the treadmill or outdoors, clears my head of the garbage, gets me into my breathing and my footfall, and before I know it, most of the world disappears. And it’s just me and the run.

And it is bliss.

I’m hungry though. All the time…

Valentine III

it’s difficult to write a love poem
when You look at me different 
these days, and we’re comfortable 
but are we love? And I caught his eye
and he is smitten, but I hope he knows
I am hardly wife material. And he is 
waiting for me to what? call him so he can 
tell his friends I wanted it? grown 
women don’t be loving that way. And he 
is so pretty and words fall from his fingers
like bountiful rain, but he’s a man-child
and I know better. and You are going
through some things that look a little like
my things, and we can never get our
things right but damn if we don’t
keep trying. And he belongs to another, 
but got tripped up and gave me his soul,
or vice-versa (does it even matter) and 
none of this sounds like love but it 
certainly feels like freedom, so maybe 
I wrote a love poem after all

The pieces of poetry on this blog and Write Bitches are works of fiction, erupting from my incredibly over-active imagination. This is the third poem I’ve written on Valentine’s – for a girl who never celebrated the day, I certainly love to write on it. Valentine’s III is dedicated to all those who take their love with a whole lot of freedom. Love hard, my people.

xx – M

A Writer’s Running Log

M: one mile – 9:26

T: one mile – 9:27

W: one mile – 9:06

Th: 4.1 miles – 9:29

F: one mile – 9:16

S: one mile – 8:48

Sun: 6.1 miles – 9:37

I did it – week one of my #AtLeastAMileADay challenge is one for the books. Here are some of my notes, jotted down in real time.

Monday: I fucking hate the treadmill. And that was fast, but I’m super sweaty going into my Pilates Remix class. And whoa, that one mile made this class harder than it already is. I don’t want to do this again.

Tuesday: only two days in, and this is already going to my head. I am convinced I am a stellar human because I force myself on that treadmill. Also ESPN sucks.

Wednesday: Florence and the Machine’s DOG DAYS is the best. running. song. ever. I’m getting fast. And this is so weird, but my knee seems to be improving. Let’s see what happens when I hit the streets again tomorrow morning. This is my lunar year – the pig – and although all reports say I am doomed romantically (tell me something I didn’t already know), I have my running, and I’m going to travel, and when I travel, I’m going to do some serious running in some seriously cool spots around the globe.

Thursday: hit the streets this morning and I can tell the difference those treadmill miles are making. I’m faster, but also my form is better. I’ve been doing something weird with my right foot, and didn’t do it at all this morning. That said, I felt all of this week’s miles in my hot yoga class – my shoulders ached and my legs felt heavy and all of the poses took effort. It’s a tough class, but I don’t usually leave so wiped.

Friday: I actually looked forward to this mile, which was really 1.1 miles. I don’t think these little one-milers are doing a thing for my body, at least not in terms of giving me skinny white-girl thighs, but I am getting faster, and more disciplined. And my form is improving. All good stuff.

Saturday: did my one mile in the streets of my neighborhood, and even though I thought I would be slower, I actually ran super fast. It was cold though. And the pavement is not kind to my body. Still though, I hate that treadmill.

Sunday: 8:17 am – I don’t wanna go. But I’m gonna. 10:45 am – And I did. Most of the miles were ugly, and I didn’t catch a good rhythm until the end, but whatever. Felt good to do it. And felt even better knowing if I wasn’t pressed for time, I could have easily done a couple more miles. Still not running no marathon. #NopeNopeNope

Thoughts On An American Marriage

I really could not stand that book. The characters have no redeeming qualities, they were horrible to each other for the sake of being horrible. I don’t understand why everyone is talking about it. 

So said my girlfriend a couple of months back, as we stood shivering one early morning, she in her sunglasses and me with my coffee, along the sidelines of a Jersey City soccer field, kind of watching our kids’ game, more so catching up. Her book club just finished reading Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage; I told her I had it sitting on my book shelf, but had yet to dive in. I’m not a fan of hype, and An American Marriage was getting hype with a capital H. She continued on for a bit, perplexed by all the negative energy on the page, I let her ramble until she got it all out, and eventually our conversation turned elsewhere. 

I should have known better than to send a man to do a woman’s job

Fast forward to three days ago, when I pulled the novel from my bookshelf and took a peek. I had just finished Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women and was still feeling shaken by the last paragraph of the final story in the collection. [Aside: I’m still feeling the same way about that paragraph. So much that I discussed it in therapy, and burst out in tears. I think I will always feel shaken by that paragraph.] I needed to escape the head state Difficult Women left in its wake, and I could have turned to my own writing and worked on my current WIP, but up until said therapy session, I’d been too troubled by my own words and the secrets they held to want anything to do with them, so instead I turned to Jones and her omnipresent novel. And once I opened it, I couldn’t put it down.

Three days later, I finished.

How could I tell him that desire didn’t work the way I thought it did when I was younger, my head turned by the electricity of attraction.

While reading An American Marriage, I texted a friend and said the following: I see so much of my own story in these pages. What I should have said was I see so much of myself in Celestial Davenport.

One of the main characters, primary female voice, center of a love triangle Celestial Davenport. Dark, conflicted, independent Celestial Davenport. Unapologetic, messy, indulgent Celestial Davenport. Sensual, charismatic, creative Celestial Davenport. Business-savvy, goal-oriented, childless Celestial Davenport.

I know why my girlfriend didn’t like this book.

Celestial Davenport.

She, and here I mean my girlfriend, comes from a place of love and light, the adulthood she has carved for herself is aspirational. Her career fulfills, her children are wonderful, and her husband is even better. (I’m not kidding – in terms of husbands with whom I’ve crossed paths, I don’t think I’ve met one quite as lovely as he.) In my girlfriend’s world, I’m not sure there is room for the kind of darkness Jones conjures on the page, I don’t even think it exists.

I, on the other hand, have seen some things. And lived through some things. And without getting into the details of my things, I will say it felt good to lose myself in Celestial, to see in print the raw and honest, not-so-nice side of being a woman, being a person, with choices to make, and lives to live. Reading Celestial felt like Jones crawled around in my soul and spent some time in my skin, came up for air, grabbed a pen, and started writing.

A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way… Each of us has lain down for a reason that was not love.

Not to say I’ve ever been the center of a love triangle, nor am I childless, but I am a woman, and I have had to make choices. Again and again and again. And some of them are not pretty, the kind I would never share with another. They are dark, and people get uncomfortable and itchy when a woman walks around carrying all of that, similar to the way they wonder why anyone would ever want to read a story like Celestial’s.

[And Roy’s and Andre’s. The men of the novel. Who were weak in spirit so clung to Celestial’s, and managed to irk me much more than elicit my sympathy. No offense to them, but I found both to be minor, rather like end tables to a beautiful vintage couch that are practical but could also be tossed and the result would remain the same: good god, that couch is stunning.]

We want to read Jones’ Celestial, because she is us. We are her. And sometimes life is about being horrible to each other, and how we come out the other side, and carry on.