Interview: Her Story
Jessica C., 48, is a teacher, poet, and writer, who, in many ways, is responsible for nurturing my love of writing. As a student in her English class nearly 20 years ago, she was a breath of fresh air - a liberal-minded intellectual in south Texas' deeply conservative culture - whose flexible curriculum paved the way for my indoctrination into Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Now New York-based with her spouse and two children, Jessica shares, in her own words, on the trap of pleasing others, a marriage of true minds, the gift of silence, and writing the stories she wants to write.
Riding my banana seat bike to the library when I was lonely as a girl; it made reading a big part of my life.
Libraries are still my favorite places. Librarians are too, though one of the librarians from when I was a child used to get mad at me for returning books on the same day I’d checked them out. Having kids and teaching: both have taken me outside of myself, both have kept me grounded in the day-to-day.
Regarding my calling in life, I have always wanted to be a writer and a teacher. I used to line up my stuffed animals when I was little and assign them work.
I also really wanted to be a dancer, though my husband says it would have been a disaster. I didn’t get a chance to take lessons as a kid, so I ran track instead. But to talk about a calling can be misleading too...sometimes my job is just a job. I do it well, and then I come home and forget about it. Americans might put too much meaning in this idea of a calling. It can keep you from living life or from paying attention to the things that deviate from your “path.”
Caring for other people is one of the best ways to figure out life because I think it is hard to understand anything if you think about yourself all the time.
Caring for a child completely takes you out of yourself. So can teaching. If you surrender to these tasks and let the tasks guide you (instead of imposing yourself and ego on them), you can learn a lot. I know because I have both imposed myself and surrendered myself and misery always came when I tried to force my own ego on others.
If I could go back to 1993, I would probably apply for an MFA or PhD in creative writing.
At the time, I wanted financial security and healthcare. I wanted the security of a salary, and I wanted it quickly so I did not have to rely on anyone else. So I became a teacher, and I have been able to support a family of four for 23 years on a teacher's salary. What I’ve learned about my poet life, however, is that writing well simply is not enough. You have to know other poets in order for anyone to notice you because only poets read other poets. Thus, I have been slowly trying to access a little bit of a writing community. Locally, that has been easy because our downtown Y has a vibrant and affordable program, but, beyond my local community, it means money and time for conferences and travel.
I wish I had not tried so hard when I was younger.
The advice I got was work hard, work hard, and that’s all I knew to do for a long time, but I think it’s a limited way to approach growth if that’s all you’re doing.
I was deeply caught in the trap of pleasing others growing up - partly because girls are raised to be valued for pleasing and are criticized for not pleasing.
The consequences for not doing what was expected of me were severe. I grew up with lots of criticism, but I don’t remember praise or encouragement. That was very Gen X. I felt that I would lose people if I did not do what they wanted. This is a terrible feeling that we all carry to some extent. I am 48 and just now writing about my own life (instead of others' lives). I think it has taken me 48 years to believe that my stories were my own, that the things I felt and experienced were actually mine. So all of that preamble is to say that I am in that critical place now - trying to write the poems I want to write even if they are not received well by those who know me.
The fear of being rejected is probably in our genetic material - will we be left out in the cold while everyone eats the meat around the fire?
That fear is very real. My son, however, doesn't have it at all. He's worn mix-match socks for two months straight because someone made fun of his mix-match socks one day, and, to "show them," he made it his fashion statement every day since. I've never had that confidence. I guess something I've done right is give that to him.
I do know that whatever anxiety a person has about overcoming societal expectations lessens each time that person defies them.
But getting free is hard work! For me, anyway. And, I think people should be careful about what rules they decide to break because there is always a consequence, and we should save the consequences for things that matter.
My biggest risk is writing the things I truly want to write. The things that people think I've done that were risky never felt risky (i.e., hitchhiking in Europe and two home births).
I used to be somewhat careless with my physical self - before I had children - but it was carelessness not true risk. And I think that distinction is really important. To risk means something dear is at stake for you.
The first time I ever saw my husband (he was at the far end of a bus heading out to a college track meet) I felt like I was in love with him.
My first thought, actually, was that "he doesn't belong here" in the same way that I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt connected to him even before we talked. We are very close - closer than we've ever been. I have felt that deep connection to other people too, but I think romantic love, like any kind of love, is work in the sense that you have to be willing to listen, trust, and be vulnerable. It is worth it to find that kind of closeness with another person; there really is no end to it. If the other person is not willing to go there with you, though, it can’t work. Or if you are not equals. You need Shakespeare’s “a marriage of true minds” or Anne Carson’s lovers in Autobiography of Red: “They were two superior eels at the bottom of the tank and they recognized each other like italics.” The word superior has a bad rap, but you have to believe in your qualities especially if they’re under assault in your culture - finding them to love in another person can be liberating and helpful for self-love. There’s probably a million things wrong with that statement psychologically, but hey, I’m just surviving here.
Someone can have everything you desire on paper, but if you don’t like the way they chew, it’s not going to work.
When you love someone, their flaws are pleasing to you. And it’s a cliche, but I don’t think you can look for someone. I think you have to stop looking. In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, I have felt deep sadness for what others are going through and also deep joy that I get to be home with my family and do the things I love with people I love.
That dissonance is one of the strangest parts of the experience, especially because I love being home with my kids and then I Zoom call some of my own students and I can see that many of them are unhappy and isolated. And, of course, the incompetence and callousness from our government is disturbing. It’s also hard to watch the economic cruelties in our system and watch how the cruelty is accelerated in a crisis.
Books have always been a resource to me - I read a lot when I am scared or confused about a topic.
Books by Pema Chodron and Eckhart Tolle helped me a lot, also The Bhagavad Gita with the introduction by Eswaran. Also, exercise has been imperative for my mental health.
I love having an entire day alone to read and write. I talk so much as a teacher that to be silent is a gift.
On an ordinary day, I pause to be present in my body about 10-20 times a day - sometimes for less than 30 seconds. I am constantly reminding myself to be in the body. I put quotes all over my work space and write on my hands to remind myself not to get stuck in old patterns of worry. I spent my first 30 years thinking of the past a lot and living in my head. The attempt to be present is a shift I’ve been working on only for the last decade, and sometimes, unbidden, I have these surges of joy for no external reason. I used to need external affirmation to feel good about myself and because of that I was often very unhappy. Change is not sudden, or, if it is, it’s a result of thousands of small efforts. And when I get complacent, my old habits surge back. It helps, though, if you’ve been building resilience since childhood.
Interested in reading some of Jessica's poems or books? Click here for her website, with links to read her poems online and information on where and how to purchase her books.
Photo Credit: Ed Cuello