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Cinelle Barnes | Longreads | excerpted from Malaya: Essays on Freedom | October 2019 | 15 minutes (3,929 words)

Writing the Mother Wound, a series co-published with Writing our Lives and Longreads, examines the complexities of mother love. 

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We had everything, then we had nothing. But I always had books and dance. This was my shorthand response to anyone who asked about my distant past, my pre-America. I say distant because the past happened in the Philippines, thousands of miles away, before the internet was as routine as checking the time or eating breakfast. The past had no online footprint. The past lived in recesses of my brain that had been walled off by art history facts, sewing techniques, and memorable World Cup plays. I had found a place for the past and there I kept it. The past was so distant, I could tell it like the summary of a fairy tale. Once upon a time, and I lived happily ever after. The shorthand was enough for years, for over a decade spent in New York, Georgia, and South Carolina, until I got a therapist who liked to read. She understood words, therefore she understood what I used them for, and how. My sentences were never too short nor too long for her—she liked to break down both. When you said this, what did you mean? An English major before she was a licensed trauma specialist, she saw my every anecdote as a scene, every verb a cause or effect, and every subject or object a motif.

Today’s motif: Tell me more about dance.

What about it?

Tell me about it as if you were describing a ritual, something you religiously do. Your memories of it. You do it religiously, don’t you?

I suppose. I’ve been dancing since I was three.

We start there. I was three. Or, more precisely, I was turning three and as I was turning numbers, growing, growing up, my baby brother died. I was going and he was stopping—these were the verbs I used for myself and him then. I’d been in ballet class that year because Mama thought first position could cure my pigeon-toe, and a tendu could fix my bowleggedness. The ballet did work, if we’re talking about returns on my mother’s investment. But it also worked in that it introduced me to a space that allowed for nothing but the movement of limbs, sashaying across floors, routines to go with the music, and outfits (always in aqua—en vogue at the time) to go with the routines. My body was not detested at the dance studio, like my mother detested my body, so long as I could plié and tiptoe to the beat. One, two, three. Two, two, three. Three, two, three. And four. I was lucky, too, to not have the kind of ballet teacher I saw in movies. My teacher, Ms. Anna, had a dimple on one cheek that always showed because she always smiled. My mother, on the other hand, stopped smiling when my brother stopped going. We buried my brother, his body, in our garden the night of my third birthday, and from that point on, my mother obsessed over what my body was doing—was it expanding, stretching, bowlegging, pigeon-toeing, making room for hives, scabs, and scars? She watched the end of every ballet class, when we would run through the entire routine learned that day, to assure herself, I understand now, that my body was plié-ing, tendu-ing, sashaying, tiptoeing, going. Dancing was going, an effect of my mother’s grief. This is the physics of our relationship.

Did you keep dancing? my therapist asks.

I tell her yes but not in the studio. We lost our money sometime in 1990. There was a war and a flood, and together they caused an avalanche — Mama became erratic and unruly, even violent, and would disappear for a string of nights, and Papa left to salvage what he could of his business from the war. My older brother entered into a sad and angry mood that eventually led to frequent drug use. But even with the mood, my brother managed to take on the role of parent, and he found ways to make money so we could eat. There were days when we’d go without food until sundown, and the only way to ignore our hunger was to inflict pain another way. We would play with the flame of a candle, pinching it with thumb and index finger until it went out.

My body was not detested at the dance studio, like my mother detested my body, so long as I could plié and tiptoe to the beat.

One way my brother made food money was to run a taxi service with the van our father left us. He was a high school junior, old enough to get a driver’s license in Manila. We shuttled fellow students to and from our schools, charging them enough for a meal each way. My brother, who took piano lessons during the time I was in ballet, hadn’t lost his love of music even when we had lost everything. If anything, the poverty and our family’s version of orphanhood intensified his love — need — of music. The van he drove was popular among commuters because he outfitted it with cassette jackets, Super Orange car fresheners, and cases of tapes: hip-hop A-sides and B-sides. My brother was a muso—we all knew that the first day he laid fingers on a keyboard. He read notes as though he could sense them from the air; life with sound was a constant osmose for him. So he chose hip-hop, and only hip-hop, for the van and his passengers, as a way to subtract, to home in, to detract from the chaos of Manila noise, a belligerent and negligent mother, and the deafening sound of silence after one’s father leaves. Hip-hop made sense to him and to me because the top tracks of the day were as angry and angsty as we were, and were cadenced lyrics from the mouths of ’90s justice seekers. It felt apt. And because it felt apt, I danced to it. I popped and locked, tutted, ticked. I carried over the muscle control I developed in ballet and used it to isolate rib cage from neck and rib cage from hip, and I was as high as someone could get without the help of drugs. But my brother needed the help of drugs, even more so when Mama stole the van service from us and operated it with her lover. Without the van, without the music — what was a boy supposed to do? There was no rhythm now, not even the grumm of an engine, so my brother — my personal DJ — went from sad to sullen to resentfully silent. His vibrations changed. When I was in a room with him, all I could feel was the antipathy emanating from his body. And bodies communicate, so I shuffled as far away from him as I could, taking his muteness as a warning.

And you stopped dancing then? my therapist assumes. She is wrong for the first time in the months I’d been seeing her. I feel a sense of pride. Maybe I am finally the enigma she can’t decode. Maybe I like to be a mystery. What child of trauma doesn’t?

You’d think. But I danced in front of the mirror a lot. I had nobody, so my reflection was my company.

She writes on her clipboard and bites her lip. She is silent for a minute before she asks, Did your reflection talk?

My reflection didn’t talk as much as she echoed. I sang a song to her and she sang it back to me. I sang a line from a song about things being gone before you knew it, first like Joni, then Janet, because at that point I was a preteen sliding on a scale of bemoaning to bewildered. Everything was equally irritating and intriguing, and add to that the fact that my brother was sent off to live with his biological father (after years of our mother keeping him away), my mother had turned into a con artist who sold nonexistent real estate, and her lover had turned the house into a breeding and fighting space for gamecocks. There were also strange men coming through the house, some of whom visited me while I slept. I woke up to memories of dreams of memories of even deeper dreams. So Joni’s brooding and Janet’s sultry sounds fit—ranges that both went over octaves, but one came out sounding strangulated and the other, sexed. The dance moves that I paired with their songs involved swaying, a whole lot of it, mostly with my eyes closed, at tempo with my breathing, and just briskly enough to lift the hem of my shirt or skirt into a parachute. There was joy in seeing my shirt or skirt let air come in and through the fabric. There was a soothing quality to it — that I could be touched without being touched; that something could be close but safe. Later, in college, I would see my preteen reflection in the Martha Graham dancers I watched in New York City — dancers trained in Graham’s style of contraction and release, which went directly against the illusion of weightlessness given off by classical ballet. Her technique involved meaningful, cumbersome steps — the dancers leapt only to be on the ground again, gravitropic. The gold border of the hallway mirror outside my bedroom framed these steps well. It was taller than it was wide, and much of the upper portion of it served as negative space — most of the moving was done so my body would end up crouched or folded or splatted on the floor. This was laborious, and I liked it. Sweat begets sweat.

Did you ever feel separated from your reflection? Was she watching you or were you watching her?

Neither. I was watching me. I know what you’re trying to get at. But I am not my mother.

My mother lived as two — at least two — people. I had described her/them in my book and in therapy as Tiger Mama and Orchid Mama. Tiger Mama had a gun in her purse; Orchid Mama hummed while she brushed her hair or did her makeup. Mama split in two after my baby brother died, and she kept splitting, or kept going deeper into her two personalities—I lost track: Was it multiplication or division or addition?—and became scarier to us with each year. By the time I was eleven, she had habitually forgotten to feed us, had assisted her lover in multiple embezzlement scams, had flailed and shot a gun in the air, and had bathed in the rain with one breast hanging out. I had told all this to my therapist, probably by our second session, and by our fourth, she had asked permission to share an observation she’d made: Can I tell you what I think your mother has, why she acted the way she did? I had wanted this answer since I was three. I think your mother is dissociated—dissociative identity disorder.

I have read plenty about dissociative identity disorder, and I know I don’t have it. I could have had it — it was right for my therapist to take note of eleven-year-old me speaking to her reflection in the mirror. But I had never been splintered. My joy was always enmeshed with my sadness, my levity with my pain. I could cry and laugh at the same time, and still do. And I have never entered amnesiac fugues. I have the opposite problem, a gift and a burden — I remember everything. Is that not why I write memoir? And is the essay not a form of uniting the multitudes within us, within me? Everything connects. I follow my body’s and brain’s lead.

That’s not what I’m saying, my therapist says. I know you are not your mother, and I don’t think you are dissociated. I just want to know where the point was.

What point?

When you could have dissociated. Look, you’re very strong. I really don’t know how you’ve held up as well as you have. I am not worried about you at all. In fact, I’m fascinated by you.

By what?

By how you’ve survived and thrived. You are more high functioning than most patients I have who’ve never been through the amount of trauma you have. I was just interested to know how you came out of all that this way, and I think I know now.

I popped and locked, tutted, ticked. I carried over the muscle control I developed in ballet and used it to isolate rib cage from neck and rib cage from hip, and I was as high as someone could get without the help of drugs.

I give her the time to explain. She tells me about dance/movement therapy, the importance of paying attention to our breath, and the physicality of psychology. That muscle is memory, too— contractions and expansions of tissue that have emotional and mental provenance. That a human being is an anatomical organism, a whole made up of many smaller wholes, or systems. She asks if I kept dancing through my teen years and college, and I say yes. Bingo, her smile tells me. Last time she asked me to imagine my happy place, I started crying. I imagined my bed, my head on my pillow, my hands clasped in prayer. She told me to stop and open my eyes, because what I had been considering my happy place was obviously a sad place. Prayer at bedtime, she said, although sacred and important to me, might have been tinged with lonely and fearful memories. She asked me at that same session to imagine another place, and I couldn’t produce one. Let’s try doing happy place again, she says today. Imagine yourself dancing. Four, three, two, one.

It is my first college dance performance, and before me is an audience of two hundred. I am a spider creeping to stage left, the spotlight following me. My arms are two of eight limbs, shooting into the air like daggers, and my feet are ball-heeling in rickety syncopation; I must be frenzied. And frenzied I am. I am a black widow orbiting my mate. I luxuriate in leg movements — the tendu I had practiced since childhood, the full and demi-pliés that make me more insect than pigeon. My arm extensions are to part the web I had spooled around him, biceps and triceps and trapezius activated and in sync. Which should I devour first, head or heart? I say to myself, thinking back to the strangers that visited my bedside when I was asleep. The lights dim, the stage goes black. Applause.

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I am scooping air out of air, my pelvis is dipping in sequential Us while my legs bring me forward and back. I do this, with some variation in head and hand flicks for every verse, to M.I.A.’s “Bamboo Banga.” I am at the end of my college dance career; it is the last performance, in fact, and I have just decided to drop dance as a second major. I didn’t want to major in dance, I just wanted to enjoy it. I am giving the routine all my power — or as the song says, “Powah! Powah!”— and when the techno-tribal-world track introduces the sound of dogs barking as an interjection to the chorus, my mouth opens to let out an inaudible howl, then a very loud laugh. I am standing over my prey, paws heavy on the carcass of a mammal who didn’t know that my body was not their body, but mine. I am a pack leader, I belong to a tribe. I am no longer a sad, abandoned, hungry child. I just fed on the meat of someone who now knows they’re weak. The song ends, I am a frozen wolf, and the class and teacher are staring with their jaws hanging.

I am a young bride of twenty-four, newly unveiled from under polyester tulle and dressed in an empire-waist sheath with a lace overlay, as light as the day’s atmosphere. My groom is twirling me next to a koi pond in Central Park, while two sparrows play in a birdbath next to us. I think of us as the two sparrows, washing off trauma from our opposite but parallel pasts. My groom spins me, and my quadriceps and gluteal muscles ground my standing leg so the rest of me is ethereal, and the hem of my dress parachutes up, just like when I was little, and he keeps spinning me around until we make our exit—the hand-holding, snickering, shy little dance our recessional.

One, two, three, four. You can come back now.

I hesitate to come back but know that I have to. It is what dance has taught me to begin with: being present. I open my eyes.

Looks like you found your happy place. My therapist and I are both smiling; we have been rewarded for our work. She tells me that I should dance again, maybe find a local studio or a gym offering dance classes, and tells me that since I was diagnosed with complex PTSD, my body has likely been longing for rhythmic movement, for an excuse to be frenzied. She reminds me that I started seeing her after I had a baby, because having a baby is equal parts physical and spiritual experience. Like dance, childbirth shifts your inside and outside, and nothing is the same after. Like dance, emotions surface once dormant muscles are put to use, once your body learns it can do painful, incredible things. It tests reality, it grounds you. You reach otherwise lost positive body memories. It reclaims your body piece by piece.


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I find a local dance studio and a gym offering cardio-dance workouts. I pay for memberships, now that I can afford them. My therapist has released me from under her care. You have your tools now. I feel broken up with, but also ready to move on — now that she’s found me out, where’s the fun? I feel like my brother when he had just been discharged from rehab, like I’m buying a new plant, unsure if I can, as the rehab counselor had instructed him, keep a plant alive. I plan on showing up for Beginner Contemporary and Beginner Hip-Hop at the dance studio, and Afro-Caribbean Cardio at the gym. I consider whether this is my new shorthand, talk therapy as once upon a time, dance as ever after.

I go every week, and I get my husband to take classes with me. It is my happy place — I can see his reflection in the studio mirror, and it is wiggling and jiggling and getting down harder than I will allow myself. He is over six feet of musculoskeletal joy reclaiming memory. Sometimes I stop in a deep squat, immobilized, my face in my hands, because the laughter is paralyzing. When we pick up our daughter from the gym day care, a woman from our class who is also picking up her child says, Your mama and daddy like to shake it, and bless them, they bring me joy! And we are happy to be someone else’s therapy.

But then I go to a community service and prayer meeting with a bunch of old White ladies, ladies who lunch, and not only do I feel out of place in my sports tank and leggings, the “praises” I share from my week are scrutinized and compel the ladies to ask if they can lay hands on me. I say thanks but no thanks, there is no need to pray — Afro-Caribbean dance is not voodoo. They say that it is tribal, therefore pagan, and I must cancel my gym membership at once. Someone suggests I switch over to the very technical, mechanical routine of Pilates. Pilates?! I say, disgusted at the thought of muscle control without magic—of fixing my body without using my body to fix the rest of me. A woman says I am in dire need of prayer, for I might have summoned unwanted spirits into my life. Dance as a curse. But I don’t believe her; there is nothing visible nor invisible that proves her point. My form of dance — the arm throwing, gyrating, backbending, toes reaching into pockets of air — is the visible and invisible me: reflection and person, laughter and tears, spider, wolf, woman. I get up and leave without saying goodbye, and I don’t come back. I find spiritual people with leanings toward the charismatic. If dance is a summoning, it is only summoning mental health, physical strength, and deep relationships for me. I have my unlikeness to my mother to prove it. And I have a daughter watching. I see her snap and bob her head.

My form of dance — the arm throwing, gyrating, backbending, toes reaching into pockets of air — is the visible and invisible me: reflection and person, laughter and tears, spider, wolf, woman.

I become an evangelist for dance. I proselytize one woman and family after another. It is that point in the Carolina summer when even the pool isn’t refreshing — the water is as warm as air in a parked car. I entice moms with an air-conditioned dance studio and a summer activity that will wear out the kids. I also text them things like AND GREAT FOR THOSE EXPERIENCING DEPRESSION OR ANXIETY! TRUST ME! I organize an inaugural Family Hip-Hop and Creative Movement class, fifteen dollars per family. No prior experience necessary, just bring your body and your memories, and we provide the rhythm and routine. It is my mission today to make everyone crazy. Tribal crazy. Just as all of our ancestors, no matter where we hail from, used to do—gather round, pull out the lute and drum, and circle the blazing pit while flitting and frolicking. I tell everyone, Don’t be nervous. Your body just wants to tell you things. I don’t tell them we might travel in space and time, because we will come back to the present. That is the point, anyway.

Five, six, seven, eight. And—

The routine starts with two steps forward, a cross of the arms, and a nod. Step two is a whiz of the right hand to the left knee, as if we’re washing a big window, and we come back to standing position by clapping our way up. From that point, there are jumps, slides across the floor, swiveling on one hand, and marking the air with punches, cutting it with leg hikes, and clutching at it as if to collect all the oxygen for later use. At water break, everyone tries to catch their breath and everyone is talking at once, but nobody is talking to one person in particular. We are all saying, That was so hard! My legs are on fire! My arms feel like twisted noodles! I am more exhausted now than after a marathon! But everyone is saying these things and smiling. This is painful, incredible work.

We all get back in front of the mirror, to our respective spots on the floor, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers. The music starts. One of the moms commits to her body roll, and it is the most sensual I’ve ever seen her. Another mom is looser than I’ve ever known her to be — she organizes homes and offices — and is breathing deep, breathing slow, breathing into her muscles. My daughter, who is an achiever and rule follower, is lying on the floor and doing the same moves as the rest of us but on her own lateral plane. I have succeeded, I think, because everyone is moving through time and space like their pituitary glands are regulated: thyroid is stimulated, oxytocin is high, and there’s nary a trace of cortisol. The only fight-or-flight reaction here is flying en pointe to the ceiling and fighting for stability when balancing on one foot. I watched my mother dance in the rain once — she had both feet on the ground but could not maintain her balance.

I look at myself in the mirror, my reflection looking back at me. We are sweating, our clothes clinging to my/her skin, my/her sweat smells and tastes salty, like the ocean between here and there, then and now, and we are one with ourselves in this frenzy.

She is. I am.

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Also in the Writing the Mother Wound Series:

‘A World Where Mothers are Seen’: Series Introduction by Vanessa Mártir
I Had To Leave My Mother So I Could Survive, by Elisabet Velasquez

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Cinelle Barnes a memoirist, essayist, and educator from Manila, Philippines, is the author of MONSOON MANSION: A MEMOIR (Little A, 2018) and MALAYA: ESSAYS ON FREEDOM (Little A, 2019), and the editor of a forthcoming anthology of essays about the American South (Hub City Press, 2020). Her writing has appeared in Buzzfeed Reader, Catapult, Literary Hub, HYPHEN, Panorama: A Journal of Intelligent Travel, and South 85, among others. Her debut memoir was listed as a Best Nonfiction Book of 2018 by Bustle and nominated for the 2018 Reading Women Nonfiction Award. She earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Converse College and was a WILLA: Women Writing the American West Awards screener and a 2018-19 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards juror, and is the 2018-19 writer-in-residence at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. She lives in Charleston, SC, with her family.

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