So, I got through the slog of All the Pretty Horses (which was part genius, part bored me to tears, to be honest). Next up is Lonesome Dove, because I guess I’ve got the wild west in me today…
Self-portrait for today:
The first poetry collection I’ve read in a while that I really liked. It’s all about motherhood. I appreciate how playful she was with style, and how her poems were simple and accessible, kind of saying–hey, I’ve got kids, there’s not time to waste here. An hour-read–highly recommend!
And for those of you new to my tiny letter project, I’m spending the next year writing one tiny letter to Ethan a day to compile into a book for when he’s older. The one I wrote today was about my complicated relationship with the Catholic Church–yes, you can imagine how that one went. I’m sharing them out every once in a while to keep myself accountable.
But this one actually isn’t for Ethan. I wrote it at my VONA workshop, and I’ll probably keep refining it. For now, the offering:
Feb 28, 2021
I emailed you recently. I don’t know what compelled me to do it, other than guilt and remorse. I asked how I could help you advance your important work, and even though we haven’t spoken in years, you got right back to me. You didn’t ask how I was doing, but you did see an opportunity. This is one of the things I’ll always love and hate about you. It would have been a great chance to acknowledge our history, but like many great moments, it came and went.
Our story begins with a dream job at NASA, which became less dreamy once I realized I had many responsibilities but no power. It started in a cubicle away from the window, where my predecessor had left popcorn crumbs and coffee stains underneath my chair.
Yet, I began anew. I scrubbed the sticky desktop—made it shine—and dug out a computer monitor from the drab storage room. I set up my notebook and pens and cheerfully ignored that my nameplate was misspelled.
A year later, we were meeting in your office for my one-year review. I brought out my color-coded charts, list of accomplishments, and my best smile. We looked outside your window together on the ninth floor and saw campus. The deep blue of the sun tinged everything in your office with a tender light—it shone over the portraits of your daughters. You turned to me and said, “I never thought you could do this job. But you did.”
My face fell, and I wanted nothing more than to leave the room and hide under a rock for the next century. The punch didn’t go away once I found out I was eligible for about ten promotions in the next four minutes when you realized I was the most underpaid civil servant to ever run the program I was managing. You couldn’t quite articulate why you didn’t think I could do the job, yet made it clear that it was the goodness in you that gave me a shot.
I was young. I’m female. I’m Mexican. I was raised to be kind, private, elegant—but all you saw was how I was not gregarious, open, or a shrewd negotiator. In other words, I was not you.
If you looked more closely, you would see a young woman who admired your leadership and saw things that your inner circle didn’t. I wanted to be the one that you rushed over to share your family vacation photos with. I knew if given a choice, you would order the three-combination special at the local seafood restaurant. I knew you felt small standing next to your wife, who stood a foot taller than you. You were well-organized, deserving, articulate, a dreamer, and you liked nothing better than to see everyone laughing at our annual Christmas party. There was something about me that made you uncomfortable, and I still wonder—what else did your discomfort keep you from seeing in me?
Two years later, I was not okay. After three months home with my newborn son, my postpartum anxiety was eating me alive. I asked you if I could take more time off. You said no. I made my way back into the office, sweating, stuttering, and shaking, to hear my whole team had quit, began working fourteen-hour days, and then stayed up all night feeding my son. My job was as a high-pressure event planner—and you attended my summer programs without fail and were always the first to notice the briefest of pauses in my speeches, the wrinkle in my skirt, intuited when the world swayed before me. You preferred the gold napkins instead of the red. How maybe I wasn’t doing enough—that I hadn’t proven my worth or given my 110% while growing a human inside of me. But most importantly—the wealthy, white population I was catering to, during these events—perhaps they didn’t see themselves in me.
Eventually, my childcare fell through, and I needed to be back home for exactly ten days. This time I didn’t ask you for the time off.
I think this is perhaps the first time you saw my rage, my stubbornness. Maybe you saw something in me then, because I’ve never heard you grovel. And the golden light I held you against faded. You weren’t used to anyone telling you no, let alone a starry-eyed Latina from Dallas.
The fragile bit of it all—I didn’t quit you or fail you. When I left my dream job to care for myself and my son, I also left my home. I left my little corner desk. The two fawns by the pond, the signs that said, “don’t feed the alligators.” I left the sparkle of the Saturn V rocket at dawn—which shone otherworldly during particularly late and long nights. The hopes I once had.
I bought into your version of my American Dream. It involved jumping when you told me to jump. Stepping into a leadership role I was unprepared for and being grateful for it. When you asked if I could graduate a little earlier to start work on your timeline, I did it. What else was more important, you asked? My writing or working for the nation’s space program? We are the pioneers of the new frontier, you said. We are exploring the universe and will be making history. Our work is essential, you told me. You never told me that I was essential.
My coworker, Y., a physicist, once asked me—why does this feel silly? I’m theorizing about what could happen in a place I can’t touch. I postulate about astral bodies that are already dead once I see them. Is this worth it?
Now I know the answer. Beauty comes to me in a breathless phone call. From my dear optician who pulls my glasses off my face so gently—wiping each frame twice before he says hello. These small loves are enormous.
Yet here I am. I often ask myself why do one of eight women of color experience debilitating perinatal mood disorders? Perhaps it’s because we have inherited trauma and have reconciling to do with our past and the scary world we’re bringing a life into. Perhaps we have bosses who shame us, mothers who can’t care for us, enormous burdens to lift for others, let alone our own. I will never lift another man’s dreams while stepping on my own. Honestly, I will probably never talk to you again in reality. But I will finish this letter, in the hopes you know how much you failed me and how much I had already overcome to get a seat at the table.
I still remember the day of the eclipse—when the engineers were looking at the world through a colander, projecting many moons against the pavement. I remember when I saw Buzz Aldrin drinking Naked Juice in the cafeteria and wondered at how he must feel knowing he’ll never walk the moon again. The rush of euphoria coursed through my veins when Kjell experienced zero gravity for the first time.
But most of all, I remember the very last ceremony I planned for you, and just you, wanting to be seen until the very last secon. As the lights flickered off, everyone had already been paid or thanked or said goodbye to. I was the only one left. I dropped off my keys at your door and my badge at Building 1 and I said goodbye to the life I thought I wanted, and walked all the way home, to my son’s outspread arms.