Today, we have the honor of posting a piece from the amazing writer and journalist Alex McAnarney. Alex is a native of El Salvador and former resident of Mexico City. Her work focuses on migration, youth, gangs, and health and can be found at perishmotherland.tumblr.com.
Her post today, though longer than what we usually publish, is a testament to strength, wisdom, and love. We ask you all to take a little extra time over the weekend and experience all the beauty and honesty this post has to offer. We ask you all to recognize your own triggers, and take care of yourselves while reading, and as always, we ask you all to honor the wisdom we are blessed to share with you today.
When Friederich Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he developed the idea of the “Overman” (übermensch). While the concept of the Overman remains up for debate, several interpretations fall along the following: guided by individually crafted values, the Overman lives with purpose, possessing the power to impact others around him (or, I controversially interject, her). The Overman attempts to go above and beyond the human
In stark opposition to a strength that surges from the individual will to transcend humanness, morality, and likely— given Nietszche’s struggles with migraines and neurosyphillitic infections— illness, I’ll quote Psalm 46:1-3: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”
I can’t say I know what the meaning of strength really is. To ground yourself in the absurd, greyness of life and live with a measure of creative dynamism to carve out your own rugged path independent of others—a life of perpetual overcoming— is a type of strength. Yet, to relinquish yourself and your trust to someone else when the cacophony of “mountains falling into the sea” becomes too deafening, that too is a type of strength. One thing about strength is clear: I ask for it. A lot.
Abue, my great-grandmother, is dead. I find out three days after they bury her. They didn’t want me to see her when she was in the coffin because they thought I wasn’t strong enough. I think it would have been nice to kiss her forehead and say bye like I did when she was going to sleep. I get mad at mom for deciding for me. From the back seat of the Toyota, I see that Tita, my grandma and Abue’s daughter, is sad. Her chin whiskers quiver but no tears come out. When my mom pulls at my hair when she brushes it I think of Abue and how she brushed my hair, expertly, gently. It makes me sad, but I think of Tita’s quivering chin whiskers and tearless eyes to suppress the waterworks. When she comes to visit us, I ask her why she doesn’t cry.
“Tears are how bad things stain you. They’re hard to wash out and forget,” she says.
I shroud myself in this. When the other girls at school pick on me because my hair is like a beehive, I try hard not to cry and get mad instead, catching bees in empty butter containers and letting them roast in the Mexican sun. When I get in trouble for telling made up stories about sleeping in a dungeon to my classmates, I really, really try not to cry. But my parents are really, really mad. When I get an egg accidentally thrown in my eye at a party, I don’t cry. I just scream and scream and scream and try to punch the boy who did it.
When Dad leaves, I try my hardest to only cry once. It’s really hard because mom is crying and the kids at school suck, especially the boys. Daddy doesn’t cry. I know he feels bad, but I guess he’s strong? We always say Dads are strong at school. I want to be strong and not cry because I’m sad or because mom cries. I grab my little prayer book which I read every night and squeeze it in my hands trying to draw out a few drops of meaning. I only get half burnt flakes of pages. The book belonged to my mom, and before her, Tita. I don’t know if I should ask the fading doodle of a girly boy with a yellow hat on his blonde head. I ask him anyway, “Give me the strength to never cry.”
I don’t tell anyone because I was passed out, drunk and possibly drugged. I hide the bruises. I don’t mention his attempts to keep me in the room after, calling me his Latina Lolita. I claim him as a notch of conquest achieved on a fun weekend in Key West. I don’t need to be a victim, I can keep saying what I’m saying: He was a 25 year old Marine my 16-year old self managed to seduce. I shove every shred of despair into a tightly sealed jar and lock it away in a mental cabinet, never to be explored again. Individual responsibility is strength, after all. In the meantime, I ask the 500 mg of ibuprofen I just swallowed “Give me strength to walk straight tonight.”
January 4, 2005
There is pain. There are rivulets of blood pouring from somewhere that I cannot locate. My vision is a pinhole of post-Grand Mal seizure confusion that envelops the world in a blissfully anesthetized miasma save for one little opening through which I can see blood, a stretcher, a worried fat man.
The pinhole is slowly stretched by halogen lights into a gaping, heaving asshole of reality I’m not ready to enter. My arm lifts heavily to wipe some drool that feels embarrassingly chunky. Through the asshole I see: bloody chunks of teeth and lip clustered on my hand.
“Did somebody hit you?”
“I had a seizure,” I mutter.
My shoes are off. My hand is holding an empty pillbox. My shoulders are shrouded in a brown EMT blanket. My mouth is red, dripping, and toothless.
I must have collapsed in the parking lot. I press my nose. Not broken. No plastic surgery freebie for me. It’s funny. I laugh with a blood choked gurgle.
A male EMT looks at me funny. I keep laughing and trace the remaining bits of canine and fronts with my index finger. Jagged stalactites hanging in anticipation of the next earthquake, because the aftershocks always happened. Little bastards, won’t get the pleasure I begin to try pulling out the bits with my own hands.
“Don’t do that!” the resident advisor sitting next to me swats away my offending hand.
You don’t understand. I think to myself, they need to go. They were weak!
I don’t cry. I try my hardest to be hilarious even though I have no idea how or where I am. As I do that, I keep trying to pull my bits of teeth out. To my fingers, I plea “Give me the strength to pull this weakness out of my body.”
July 17, 2008
For the last two years, he has told me that I am worth less for being pale, that my experiences are null and void because I come from a position of privilege, that I must acknowledge my privilege, that I am weak, that I am a slut, that I am a whore, that I am not something to be brought home to mother because I am Catholic and Salvadoran and culturally I don’t fit and I must ignore my own cultural requirements, that I can be cheated on multiple times, that I can be cornered by the girls I have been cheated on with in Wynwood and that I have to be ok with it.
Then the inevitable break-up came. I left to a newspaper internship in Northern Florida, he left to blow smoke and hold mirrors in D.C at an internship that never materialized. Or so I was informed.
He returned and said he wanted to see me. Somehow I ended up on his lap on a bench while we huddled against a summer shower. Somehow our lips grazed and his fingers interlaced with mine. Somehow, we find our way to the room I’m renting. Like a biblical prophet delaying an omen, he asks me thrice if this is what I want. I never say no. Or much of anything for that matter.
We lay intertwined on the bed, the sheets ballooning up like stale, saffron ghosts. His arms are thinner than how I had left them. His purple-black chest hairs transferred onto my breasts with that odd warmth they always carried. Kashmiri wool I think to myself, surprised by the affection the thought stirs in me. I also notice he’s been speaking.
“She’s Muslim. I can take her places I can’t take you.”
I say nothing.
“You’re just too white. But you’ll find someone. You can fuuuuck.”
I say even less.
Hours later I drive him an hour South to West Palm Beach. As I’m about to drive off he sticks his head through the passenger window.
“Wait, don’t you want to get an appetizer or something? Talk about stuff?”
I snort. It’s the first noise I make in hours and floor the gas pedal, nearly taking his upper torso with me.
As I drive away, I feel the hairline cracks that had been forming start to give and widen their rupture. I wail. I wail like a new widow stranded in the middle of the desert, but tears never come out. Just gasping and grunting
To my steering wheel, I ask “Give me the strength not to turn around and set his car on fire.”
October 31, 2008
Strength. Strength. Strength. The bray of my heart syncopates with the words in my head.
I reach the top of the causeway. I can’t breathe. I feel like I felt running with the girls in PE, on the verge of collapsing on the green turf of the soccer field. Except there’s only the causeway, a 50-ft. drop and the turbid waters of the Intercoastal Waterway below. It’s a plop I wouldn’t survive.
So I keep going. Down, and down, increasing speed as the descent becomes steeper. I flee from the howling questions gnashing their sharp jaws at my aching ankles. I run across the sidewalk, the street, across the sands, until my horizon is the ocean. It is liberating-infinite and solitary. I try to forget summer. I try to forget teary admittances from the girls that revealed a monster to the messiah I thought I was dating. I try to forget activism. I try to forget illness. I try to forget Mexico City. I forget so much I forget myself. I run into the sea fully clothed. From the shore, an Argentinian yells at me.
In the evening, I go out to a Halloween party with someone new. I met him through one of my best friends. He is different. But aren’t they all in the beginning, even if his baldness and height do in fact set him apart from the others. He wears a Mexican Metalhead wig, or at least that’s what I call it. I don’t want him. I don’t. I ask for strength to stand alone and not move closer to him, to focus on the bliss of solitude, my career, things that matter. But I can’t. His teeth are crooked when he smiles. He likes Aqua Teen Hunger Force. His ass is otherworldly. He’s sweet. His name means rough in Spanish. He plays music on his dilapidated KIA radio that I like a lot. I begin to waver.
“You know, I think I—” I start.
“What?” He says
“Nothing,” I say.
I keep silent. I feign aloofness. Words, like tears, are hard to wash off. I dispense them carefully. A few days later, while we sit in a tub half-filled with cold water (he hates hot water), he asks me to stay in Miami even though he knows I want to close the book on the magic city. Life unfolds, my heart skips several beats, my toes curl. My lips fold upwards and I show him my fake teeth. I desperately want to say no and pack my bags. But, I can’t. To no one in particular, I ask “Give me the strength to love.”
September 25, 2011
It’s about 250 lbs. worth of books distributed across 7 boxes which we’re supposed to carry up three flights of stairs up to our un-air conditioned one-bedroom apartment in Kenwood. The trials and tribulations of Chicago living. I try to lift the corner of one of the boxes. Buckling under the weight, I grunt, “Give me the strength to lift…to supervise lifting!”
July 13, 2012
She was spouting Cervantes in the doctor’s clinic while getting tested for thrush. She had been gang raped by seven men while four months pregnant. Her story bounces off the mint green walls of the migrant shelter like the cheap rubber balls the local kids kicked with their feet on the muddy road. I listen. If she keeps going, she knows it will be worse. Only the strong endure the trip across Mexico. Only the exceptional survive the United States. These little safe haven towns were simply stockyards where they gave you a moment of respite before sending you off to the charnel house. Not her though, she would be going home to Honduras, even if the men that did this to her weren’t prosecuted.
The rest of the time she is silent. It’s not the silence of shock but the silence of resolve. I feel ashamed. I can only bear witness and give her apple slices during lunch hour because she—or the baby—craves their sweetness. As she sucks on the apple core, I don’t know if she’s supposed to put things into perspective: First-world problems vs. third-world problems. First-world strength vs. third-world strength. Any claim at solidarity feels empty. I’m not her friend, her savior, her anything. We are transient. We stand alone in our bodies trying to overcome the struggle of the moment. I walk to the outdoor chapel and sit on one of the wooden benches. I want to cry. But don’t want to feel the permanence of salt on my pale face.
I want to believe things can be better, that we are working towards Better. That deep empathy doesn’t come from a savior complex. That I’ve acknowledge my privilege enough. That something will be fixed. That strength isn’t surviving the 3,000 miles between Tapachula and Ciudad Juarez. That maybe, somewhere, even if quietly, I can carry something for someone else.
She tells me the plan is to leave with her friend, who was also raped that night, and go back to Tegucigalpa. I didn’t know them, but my heart turned for them. I apologized, but I wasn’t sure for what.
For the first time in a long time, I ask someone “Give us all strength.”
October 10, 2012
He asks me to stay. He hasn’t been sleeping. He’s been drinking more. The pressure is barely manageable and the workload even less so. The junkie downstairs has been dealing and turning tricks. Her boyfriend beats her on a schedule. I wanted to call the cops but the whole dealing thing made us wonder who exactly we were calling the cops on. For the most part, the third police raid took care of all that. Now we only deal with the smell of burnt eggs drifting from below through our floor.
I have an opportunity in another city. In North Carolina, I can see everything unfold. I hope he understands. I sleep on it. I walk in the woods. Three good years. The fourth will make or break us. Autumn casts its languid red glow over my face. I crush the orange leaves with my bare feet. My toes dig into the dirt like roots. There’s an idea, having roots. I think it’s the third time in our relationship he’s asked me to stay. Ask thrice…
“Give me the strength to stay.”
August 23, 2013
He is blond and tall. He is funny and gap toothed. He will do. We meet. Him for espresso, me for an Italian Soda. It’s after 5 and the caffeine would be too much. I decide on a brownie as well. As he picks at the brownie, his fingers purposefully graze mine brushing aside my relationship even while I make a very cursory mention of my partner’s research interest. He keeps picking at my brownie and I get annoyed that he didn’t ask for permission. The following day he invites me on a hike. Sleeplessly, I say yes. Through the tall grass, I see his calves. My heart skips, but only once. He tells me I’m pretty while he playfully pokes at my sides.
I haven’t been told I’m pretty in months. Then again, I haven’t really spoken to anyone or slept in two weeks or bathed in one. My shoulders are weary from bearing what feels like the emotional travel trunks of two. During the hottest weeks, I come home to phone calls and Skype chats when I want a physical presence to fill the time. Neither of us are where we should be even though we think we are. I’ve realized I’ve buckled under unrealistic expectations. It’s been a long year.
Then, along came honeyed words. In the summer sun, they shroud me like the comfort deep sleep would provide, if I could get just that. I offer to make him food for lunch since he didn’t have enough money and I hadn’t gotten paid yet. We go to his place. As I dice bell peppers, I feel his fingers skitter across my neck and across my shoulders. My heart hums. We both know what’s next and I realize I don’t really care if I’m going against expectations. It was all about carving our own idea of relationships right? I forget about the evening Skype chat waiting for me at home. To no one in particular, I say “Give me the strength to not—“
November 8, 2013
Everything is as stupid as I knew it would be. The muff smell on his lips the morning after offended me. My sudden limited mobility offends me. My heightened awareness at all the places touched by them offends me. The fact that I know I’ll be made to feel like I’m the other woman offends me The weakness in everyone around me disgusts and offends me. Their platitudinal bullshit on gender and relationships offends me. Everything offends me.
But then what can I say? Not a whole hell of a lot. I have to eat my just desserts It’s harder to forgive when there’s an ever present reminder. But what is there to forgive? It was an arrangement after all.
I’m pissed. There is no moral high ground for me to stand. It’s a bad thing to lose. Agreements aren’t supposed to hurt this bad. I’m stronger and more pragmatic than this. I look outside at the brown leaves dangling limply in the November air and press my head against the damp glass. There is no answer from above, below, or inside. And I cry, in front of him, in front of the world. Like a stupid little 5-year old girl. The stains will be hard to wash out.
So now what? Talking doesn’t make things better. The fate of five years can’t be decided by anything other than the whims of fortune. I don’t know what to ask for: Strength to leave, forever. Or strength to work it out.
I search my pockets and find a quarter to flip…
March 3, 2014
It’s a new year. I shed fears, our vacation’s tan flakes, and the previous months like snake skin. We are moving again. I start lifting weights, I run faster and longer. I start to leave the treadmill, tired of staring at the white-washed wall in front of me. I begin to pry my horizon wide open by running on the street. At least when the snow and pollen don’t interfere.
When I run, I inhale and I exhale “Forget, Forget, Forget, Move Forward.” The thudding of my grey sneakers on the pavement keeps a metonymic beat to the notes that unfold in my head, future articles, posts, plans, and goals. It is the only thing that is real: my loneliness on the road. It is the only thing that has ever been real. We are going. We’ve also decided: we’re getting married.
I remember Rilke “Love consists in this: two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other.”
We stand in our solitude and say hello to each other over the coffee machine each morning and fight over the remaining drops of half and half. We will attempt to carve our own path.
The Overcouple. So far, not as lonely as the Overwoman. I roll my eyes at my philosophical lameness and lift a 10 lb. weight.
The winter is gone. An endless summer is casting its dusky red rays within me. But the human still bites where the rays haven’t cast their warmth. I still fear, I am still angry, I cry when no one can see me. But I embrace every humiliation, pain, victory, illness, and thought. What I make mine I wear like armor, no one can use against me and it will keep me safe. Island-like, I thrive. But then, I know that’s a lie. I smile and laugh and feel secure and mean it. I am scared and hesitant and mean it. In the contradictions, I cradle myself. I embrace this too.
I raise the weight over my head. To no one in particular, I say “Give me the strength to squat deeper.”
May 10, 2014
The grey haze outside the windows casts a weary glare over the desk. I stumble to the fridge, stubbing my toe on a cat and an empty bottle of wine I must have left on the floor. The world has a hangover and the coffee I just poured is tepid and stale. To no one in particular, I say “Give me the strength to write this post.”