the dance floor was the one safe place to have a body

CW: violence, sex, grief, a graphic detail about rape

This morning, I’m out at my neighborhood cafe, where they are playing club music to wake up the patrons. Or maybe in solidarity and grief and resistance. this cafe is queer-owned/-operated, and has sizable queer clientele. A handful of folks come in who I read as queer; we’re subdued this morning. We don’t smile big. We give each other the side eye, we purse our lips in that sort of sad smile that says, I’m grieving, too, even though I’m out in the world trying to look like I have my shit together. The world feels quieter today, muted, and not just because of the fog dampening the trees and the morning commute.

This morning I am grieving like so many of us are grieving because we’ve had a mass shooting hit us in our back yard. Many others of us are grieving because this is only the latest shooting to target someone or some community we love.

My love and I spent early Sunday morning with the New York Times, out on the back deck in the sun. After more than a week of doing everything I could to avoid hearing or reading about the Stanford Rape fiasco, I finally felt like I was ready to look. To open my eyes and look. To pull my head out of the sand and look, read, take it in. I’d been avoiding the news because I didn’t want to be surprised by details of the violence, I didn’t want to hear any more about how a white man’s future is protected by all the white men in power, even though he raped a drunk woman in the bushes and was witnessed in the act. I didn’t yet want to read her letter. I wasn’t ready. I just didn’t have the room in my body for the details, and for the rage that rises up in me every time I even think about it, and I wanted to wait until I did have some room in me before I tried to take in the story. I avoided Facebook even more studiously that usual, not wanting to run into excerpts of the survivor’s letter, into yet another story about the rapist or, even worse, learning the details from some ironic Facebookable image or satirical story.

Just yesterday, sitting on the back porch with the New York Times review section, I ran into yet another article about the case — I suppose I should be grateful that rape is finally deemed newsworthy in this way — and thought, Ok. All right. Fine. I’ll read it. I took a deep breath, and got about a quarter of the way in, until I reached a line that included details about gravel in the victim’s vagina. And then I shouted, “That’s enough!” and turned the page. My beloved looked at me sympathetically as I was shrieking at newsprint.

Until we got in the car an hour after that to drive the 45 minutes to the little church that I fell in love with when I lived in Tiburon, I didn’t know about the violence in Orlando. We switched on the radio, which was turned down low, and heard the whisper of one of the NPR announcers talking about special coverage of yet another mass shooting — and then I grabbed my phone and looked up the news.” It was a gay bar,” I said. “A gay bar.”

~~ ~~ ~~

I still haven’t read anything that explains why it took the police three hours to get into that bar after patrons started calling 911.

~~ ~~ ~~

Yesterday, driving down the hill from church and looking out on the San Francisco Bay, I thought about how it could have been us. I thought, Those were kids, the people in that bar — queer youth looking for sanctuary, looking for sweetness and solidarity and, yes, sex.

They were like us, who piled into Anna’s suburban late on a Sunday to head over to the one bar in the Upper Valley that had an “alternative lifestyle” night, who knew that if we timed it just right, the bouncer wouldn’t care that some of us were underage because the bar was going to close in an hour anyway, and we tumbled into the place like a bunch of oversexed puppies and took over (we thought we took over, I thought we took over) the dance floor, and we preened and performed for each other and the “older folks” (who were what, 35?) and spun and bounced and flirted and had one place that we were “normal,” we were the majority, we were right. This place was one of the few sanctuaries I had in the world, one of the places my stepfather would have never thought to try and track me down, one of the places where sometimes I almost even forgot about him and what he had made me into. The club, the dance floor, was my reclamation space, my resistance to incest and rape; it was, for some years, some many years, the only place it felt truly safe to have a body.

I thought about the majority young, majority-Latinx queer folks at Pulse this weekend and what that night, last Saturday night/early Sunday morning, was supposed to be for them. I thought about how hard some of the people in that club had had to work just to walk in the door. I thought about the joy and delight, the sexuality, the history and ache throbbing in that place.

The word we have for the act of violating a place of holiness and worship is desecration. What the shooter did on Saturday night was a desecration.

Where can we go to be safe? Where can we go to let down our guard? As women, as queer folks, and I think even more for my QTPOC beloveds and community, what does ‘safe space’ even mean?

~~ ~~ ~~

 I listened to the news yesterday, learned that the shooter was of Middle Eastern descent, and thought, Just wait for what Trump is going to say. Just wait for the Republicans to pretend to be friends of the queer community now. Meanwhile, LGBTQ rights are under assault across the country. Meanwhile, the same politicians who called us perverts yesterday are going to try and use us now to further their cause for war. They don’t care about queer people. They care about power and violence.

Meanwhile, queer men still can’t donate blood unless they’ve been celibate for a year. (In protest of this rule, I myself haven’t donated blood since the 90s.)

I’m afraid of what white gay folks and queers will do, are doing, with news like this. We tend to make it all about ourselves, and only about ourselves — all gay and only gay, forgetting about or actively erasing the intersections. This was an attack on queer folks, yes, and primarily on queer people of color. Yesterday I turned on the radio for a minute, just to be with people who were talking about the horror, and I heard a reporter relay the comments of someone at a rally: “This is our Charleston, SC!” I can only imagine this was a white person speaking, though I might be wrong; I make this assumption because white queer folks have a history of laying claim to Black struggle with entitlement. I had to turn off the radio immediately, because I started shouting again. Queer folks have been under attack throughout human history; we don’t have to appropriate an atrocity committed on Black folks (some of whom may certainly have been queer) in a house of worship (who were targeted for their Blackness in a place of sanctuary by a white man whose actions were not called terrorism and initiated no calls to remove all white men or white people from the country, though because historically violence of this nature is committed overwhelmingly by white men, a case could be made that we might be a safer country if we did just that).

~~ ~~ ~~

At the end of last week, while having sex with my beloved, I ran my hands up and down her body, over and over, and felt a kind of thick astonishment that I get to be with this woman. With this woman. It was an old feeling, like I imagine dykes in the 50s or 60s felt, this terrified wonder, this sense of transgressing, of holding something I was never supposed to be able to hold, of experiencing a kind of joy and pleasure I was never supposed to be able to experience. Like I was doing something wrong. Maybe that feeling is my legacy, a kind of queer bone memory. I thought, But why should I be feeling this way today, in 2016, when queer folks have so much acceptance, when no one cares anymore if you’re queer?

Then I remembered the number of trans women murdered just so far this year. Then I remembered that I live in a bubble here in the Bay Area — that when I met my sweetheart at the airport in Omaha when I was there visiting a couple of weeks ago, we both hesitated before kissing hello. I put my lips on her forehead instead. Just taking her hand and wrapping her up in my welcoming arms felt wildly visible, potentially dangerous. We laughed about it nervously, but I kept an eye on the people who were keeping their eyes on us. (A few days later, back in the airport on our way out, we passed a man arriving in Omaha wearing a tshirt that read Black Guns Matter – and I was so sad to acknowledge that I was glad to be leaving.)

Then I heard the news about Orlando.

Yes, it’s still transgressive to love and want a woman the way I love and want mine. Yes, there are still plenty of people who want to see queerfolks “cured” or fixed or killed. Yes, there are still plenty of people who “love the sinner and hate the sin. Yes, there are politicians – and plenty of folks in their constituencies – who would happily legislate queerfolks out of existence.

~~ ~~ ~~

These are days for grief and rage. We live in a white supremacist patriarchy that privileges access to weaponry over the sanctity of human life, that cares more about the future well-being of a white male rapist than about holding him accountable for his crimes, that over and over deems Black and Brown bodies expendable, that treats gender transgressive bodies as crimes against nature. Change is possible — isn’t it true that change must be possible, that resistance and solidarity and the vision of something different must take precedence over hopelessness and resignation? But today it’s a struggle to pull away from the quicksand of hopelessness.

I have been thinking since yesterday of a poem by Essex Hemphill that I’ve handed out at many of my erotic writing groups – his words speak louder and more clearly than anything else I could say.

American Wedding
by Essex Hemphill

In america,
I place my ring
on your cock
where it belongs.
No horsemen
bearing terror,
no soldiers of doom
will swoop in
and sweep us apart.
They’re too busy
looting the land
to watch us.
They don’t know
we need each other
critically.
They expect us to call in sick,
watch television all night,
die by our own hands.
They don’t know
we are becoming powerful.
Every time we kiss
we confirm the new world coming.

What the rose whispers
before blooming
I vow to you.
I give you my heart,
a safe house.
I give you promises other than
milk, honey, liberty.
I assume you will always
be a free man with a dream.
In america,
place your ring
on my cock
where it belongs.
Long may we live
to free this dream.

I’m going to use all the details I damn well need

Today I am pissed off. This is a post about rape and rape culture. And uses bad language. And is angry. Just know that ahead of time.

Still reading? All right then.

There is a post on the VIDA website detailing assaults on just eleven (just eleven!) of what sounds like the many many women harassed and assaulted by a famous, well-respected, powerful man in various arts communities. A poet and photographer, he’s been involved in Cave Canem, taught at Sarah Lawrence College and Case Western, and women in the community, in his circles, have known about and warned each other about him for years – and yet only now is there collective voice enough to speak out, over and in spite of his threats to ruin his victims’ careers and credibility if they told.

And because I was stupid enough to read the comments about a link to this post on the VIDA FB page, here’s what I saw – Why was this done anonymously? How can we believe these stories if the tellers don’t include their names? Why didn’t they tell before? Why didn’t they go to the authorities? And why did they have to include such salacious details? What if it’s a false accusation—people’s lives are ruined by false accusations. (Eleven women’s testimonies! How many women have to come forward before their collective voices aren’t automatically decried as yet another attempt to ruin the name of a “good man” for their own malicious, apparently hysterical ends? Someone posted statistics of false allegations – here’s how often that actually happens, my friend.)

So, you know, obviously, overwhelming support for the women violated.

Just this week, articles about intimidation and harassment of women in science and deans of law schools accused of ongoing sexual harassment who admit their crimes, and get to write a letter of aploogy rather than lose their jobs because, you know, the chancellor didn’t want to ruin the guuy’s career (I can only assume it was only after massive outcry that he was eventually put on indefinite leave).

Over and over, women harassed, assaulted, violated, raped by men who have power, “mentors,” teachers, helpers. We are worth their time and attention because they find us sexy and want to fuck us – but then what then what then what? But then our ideas are worthless, our words, our theories, our art, our minds: worthless. What we are good for, according to these men, these leaders in their fields, is cunt. We are good for satisfying the bodily or harassment needs of our “mentors” who are just “out of control.” They can’t stop thinking about us, they need us, we should be flattered—obsession is our romantic norm, after all. And they warn us they could get in trouble, they know they shouldn’t be telling us these things, they want us to feel bad for them, they need us to help. We’re supposed to be swept away when he can’t keep his hands to himself, when he can’t listen to your presentation, recital, ideas because you’re just too beautiful, too sexy, that mouth those eyes those legs those tits—what do you expect me to do when you’re up there having a body in front of my wanting?

The women who speak out publicly are called mentally unstable (my stepfather said the same thing about me). We are crazy because we broke silence, we are crazy for not wanting their dicks in the first place, we are crazy for thinking we have the right to say no, crazy to believe that when we tell what happened to us, our words will be held in the same regard as those who raped or attempted to rape us. We are crazy when we go to the police. We are crazy when we say you will be held accountable. We are crazy when we speak up knowing the rapists won’t be held accountable.

Of course we’re not crazy. And of course we arehow could we not feel crazy? With the whole world telling us we made it up/it wasn’t that bad/you should get over it/you probably asked for it/what did you do to make him mad/I’m sorry I promise I’ll stop oops I just did it again

Look at you they get to do. Wherever and whenever and with impunity. With impunity. And folks of all genders keep on protecting your right to do it. Rapists in cultural communities. Rapists who are celebrities. Rapists who form the backbone of revered and massively powerful religious institutions (and this one and this one and this one and this one  and…)

So many stories, and people don’t want the details. Why’d you have to say he had bad breath? Why’d you have to give the size of his penis, the smells of his body, the cigarette stains between his fingers. Why’d you have to tell so much? Can’t you just, like, say it without giving us all those details?

Let me give you excerpts from American Psycho, Lolita, Game of Thrones, many Quentin Tarentino films, any number of Henry Miller books, the alt-lit boys who use their sexual assaults as fodder for their “art,” Andrew Dice Clay, shock jocks, who else who else who else—the men who are unafraid of the details, unapologetic about the details, the men who use all of it –

but we are supposed to be quiet about these facts of our lives, this raw material you shoved into our hands and mouths and cunts.

Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot, you only like to read rape through the rapists’ eyes!

Fuck you for expecting that we’re not going to take your assaults, your attempts to tear us open and down, use us for your physical and “artistic” purposes and then toss us to the side and step on us like rugs and doormats and trash– that we’re not going to take all of that shit to make our own art, to tell our own truths in the art forms that choose us.

We will tell it in poetry and fiction and essay and song and spoken word and performance art  and art show and painting and comedy routine and we will not always look like the victims you convinced the word we have to look and act like (the good victims) in order to be listened to and believed. We are not fodder for your chivalry. You don’t get to rape us and then turn around and soothe us when we “act right.” We have been acting right all along.

In understand you don’t want to hear the details. I don’t either. But details, as we have been told by writing teachers since secondary school, are what makes an effective scene

If we don’t include details, you’ll impute our reliability—Is that really what happened? It all sounds so fuzzy. If it as as bad as you say, wouldn’t you be able to remember more?

But give the details, and suddenly we’re harming this man unnecessarily. “Can’t we just agree that he did something bad without dragging his name and reputation through the mud? Without shaming him? Without telling us all these tales out of school with out embarrassing him too much?”

Why are we protecting the tender feelings of the serial rapist assailant harasser?

I don’t want the details either, but they’re in me. I understand you don’t want the smell of my stepfather’s crotch. I don’t want it either. I don’t want the taste, the look on his face, the feel of his tongue in my mouth and elsewhere, but, my friends, this is what rape is like. Rape is in the details.

This word “rape” doesn’t seem to bother you. “Harassment” doesn’t seem to bother you. Molestation, fondle, messed around with, touched, abused—all these euphemisms have no impact on you anymore, if they ever did. You can put whatever picture you want behind those euphemisms. You can imagine it was “easier” than it was, you can assign “no big deal” to those imprecise words.

So we are going to quit making our reality easy for you. We are going to quit using euphemisms and tell you what “molestation” means, what “assault” means, what “date rape” means. Fuck you if you don’t like it. Fuck you for telling me I can only tell my story in a way you’re comfortable hearing it. Fuck you for thinking you have some authority over my art.

And fuck you for demanding that we attach our names and addresses and sexual histories and marital status to our testimonies. Do you ask all sources to break their anonymity? When people have a fear of repercussion—economic, physical, social—our journalistic standards allow for sources to be protected. You don’t get to dismiss her words because she needs to remain anonymous. Deep Throat was anonymous, remember, and that was just fine, understandable, even, but let a woman fear for her life and livelihood and safety (can I give you the statistics of women murdered by boyfriends, husbands, and why doesn’t someone take a look at how many women’s lives actually improve on campus, at the workplace, in the military, in cultural and professional communities, after they come forward publicly with experiences of rape and harassment by superiors or colleagues/classmates?) and suddenly she is a liar until someone can provide the video evidence, and then that will be sold as reality or revenge porn.

This is such an old, old story.

And I am tired of the energy it takes to be this mad.

I get it: you don’t want to read the details, You don’t want to be made to feel in the parts of your body where the violences were done to us. You don’t want the confusion of arousal while reading about violence.

Welcome to rape. That’s it’s reality.

And rape isn’t just my problem, that is, the problem of the victims. Rape belongs to all of us. The more you try to silence and ignore it and pretend it’s someone else’s issue, the more it belongs to you.

We will tell in all the ways there are to tell, and we will use the details, the accurate words, we will give, when we can, the low by blow, as you call it in your boxing lingo, in your lingo of violence and decimation. We will show the rapists’ pitiful tactics, childishness, temper tantrums. We will not let you wriggle and preen behind euphamism anymore.

And if you get turned on by the bald, true details (which, my friend, are not the same as pornography no matter how much you want to silence us by making those accusations), then that will be on your conscience, not ours.

creating our own canon

Good morning, good morning. There’s a train going through Oakland down the hill, singing it’s morning song through the intersections, and next, a helicopter shudders overhead. These are our early morning birds. Candles?  Check. Coffee and soy milk? Check. Still-fuzzy dream head? Definitely. Time to write, I suppose.

I’ve been thinking a lot about The Canon since going back to school for a degree in writing. You know about The Canon — The Western Canon, I mean, these authors and poets who have become the standard bearers for Great Writing. We know them by name: Dante. Homer. Shakespeare. Chaucer. Faulkner. Elliot. Dostoevsky. Dickens. Cervantes. Tolstoy. Joyce. Fitzgerald. Philip Roth. Henry James. Wallace Stegner. Orwell. Stendhal.Updike. Nabokov.

We know these names because we’ve been hearing about them for years, ever since junior high school, earlier. These are the authors our teachers love, and love to quote. These are the books we’re assigned to read for class, that we write book reports on. These are the books that are meant to teach us how to be good writers, even though (we know, though it’s never said out loud) we’ll never be as good–as great–as these writers are. We simply can’t even aspire to it, most of us, because we are not like these writers: maybe we are not white, maybe we are not male, and we maybe don’t expect to have “wives” (be they of any gender) who will take care of the house and raise the children and deal with bill collectors and cook meals and take care of everything other goddamn thing while we’re busy creating Great Art.

Who else is in The Canon? This would make a great writing prompt: We’d have a big piece of paper on the wall (extra-large sticky notes! my favorite!), and I’d ask for folks to shout out books or authors who belong in the canon, the writers we were told we ought to emulate, even though often nothing about their experience or writing resonated with us: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Yeats, Shelley, Keats, Browning, Hawthorne, Dafoe, Conrad, Milton, Thoreau. Who else would show up there?

There’ve been a few women allowed into The Canon: Jane Austen. Emily Dickenson. Virginia Woolf. Flannery O’Connor. Toni Morrison. Ursula le Guin. Doris Lessing. Margaret Atwood. (Well, maybe they’re not really of The Canon, per se, but they’ve been allowed some respect among the tastemakers and auditors of good writing over the last few decades.) Amazing writers, of course. No question. But do you see a common thread among most them?

Folks in my classes throw out references to these books and authors as though they’re a common language, as though we all understand references to their work. It’s assumed: Of course you’ve read the Great Works of Western Literature.

But the thing is: Mostly, I haven’t.

This would be the second part of the writing exercise: on a second giant sticky note, we’d write the books in our own canon — the books and authors that have fed us, that live on our bookshelf year after year and move after move, the books we pass on to friends, that we extoll the virtues of, the books we assume everyone in our community (which will shift for the different communities we inhabit) has read, or will read, or certainly ought to read. And then we’d write: about creating our own canon, or about one of those books or authors and what they’ve meant to us, as writers, as survivors, as whatever aspect of our identity the book connected with (women, folks of color, queer folks, working class folks, and so on).

My canon doesn’t look like the one held up as our Western standard bearer. When I had to withdraw from college at twenty-one in the early ’90s, a computer science major who’d had to leave her love of English and creative writing in the trash can back home, newly out to myself both as a queer woman and as an incest survivor, I had no interest in what the old white men (or old white women) had to say to me. They didn’t have anything to do with my life, or the kind of writer I wanted to be. My canon grew up from the books on friends’ bookshelves (especially my first girlfriend’s bookshelf), from the women authors mentioned in books about writing, books about feminism, books about incest recovery, in the new queer glossies, the authors I heard speak or named at the OutWrite LGBT Writer’s Conference — these were the books that built my understanding of what good writing could mean, could be, could do.

The names on my canon include: Alice Walker, Dorothy Allison, Chrystos, Pat Parker, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Cheryl Clarke, Jeannette Winterson, Olga Broumas, Pat Califia, Audre Lorde, Gloria Naylor, Alicia Ostriker, Angela Carter, Kathy Acker, Carol Queen, Tillie Olson, Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie, Letta Neeley, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, Sapphire, Essex Hemphill, Marlon Riggs, Sarah Schulman, Toni Cade Bambara, Yusef Komunyakaa, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Nzotake Shange, Barbara Kingsolver, J.D. Salinger (I can’t help it), Rebecca Brown, William Gibson, Mary Gaitskill.

It’s grown to include Mary Oliver, Louise Erdrich, Haruki Murakami, Octavia Butler, Kin Addonizio, Linda Smukler, Nicky Finney, Danzy Senna, Lidia Yuknavitch, Tara Hardy, Jane Hirshfield, Leslie Marmon Silko, Patricia Smith, Naomi Shihab Nye, Li-Young Lee – and still growing.

These are the writers I want to emulate. These are the writers whose work still sends a shiver through me when I read their work. These are the writers whose names send a tingle down my spine. These are the writers I think everyone should read.

There are writers (I’m thinking of Rita Mae Brown in her in-other-ways-useful book about writing, Starting from Scratch) who’d say I don’t deserve to call myself a writer if I haven’t 1) learned Latin (and Greek, preferably), and 2) read the Great Books. I keep reminding myself, sitting in these grad school classes, that it’s all right if I go to my grave never having read Rabbit Run or Lolita or Heart of Darkness. There’s just too much amazing work out there, being developed by writers whose gender or sexuality or ethnicity would have kept them out of The Western Canon once upon a time (and still does, to a great extent) to spend my precious reading time wrestling with War & Peace. Let me wrestle with Beloved instead.

Who would show up in your personal canon? What books and writers do you love so much you want to share them with everyone you know? And how have you (or have you) slipped out from under the pressure of those High School Teacher’s hands on your shoulders, guiding you away from the authors you love toward The Classics?

Thank you for your belief in the books and writers that feed you, feed your communities, feed the people you love. And thank you for your words!

not confused

(I began this last fall, and never posted it, because I couldn’t finish the piece… more about that at the end.)

I’ve been immersed in sexual assault these days. (So much so that I can’t even engage in my usual mild self-harming practice of watching Law and Order:SVU) Who isn’t, though — I mean, when aren’t we all immersed in sexual assault and hostility? When do we get a break?

I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s new book The Small Backs of Children (read it), then her essay Explicit Violence when thinking about how to write about violence without “overwhelming” my readers (a topic we discuss often in grad school — never mind that no matter how explicitly I describe the violence done to me or my sister, how cleanly I can recreate the house we lived in, the reader is never going to be as overwhelmed as we are just living with the memories). One book I read for my Autobiograpy class includes the narrator getting routinely raped by her brother, almost gang raped by older boys at her high school, and pressured into sex by her “boyfriend”– and that’s just in the first 80 pages. Never mind the news: Bill Cosby, sexual assaults on camps, story after story about how the Catholic Church continues to cover up the abuse of children perpetrated by its priests around the world. My dear friend tells me some of what she’s learning in her anti-trafficking trainings, as local organizations ramp up their services in advance of the Super Bowl. I get an announcement from the SFSU security deparment, reporting a stranger rape on campus, which reads like an old-school alt.sex.stories.rape post…

And then there’s the writing I’m trying to do — finding the words for it, writing down the old stories, the stories I haven’t written yet, the parts of my story that appear between the time Before and the time After. I’ve spent a lot of ink these last ten years writing about After, but I’ve done very little writing about During. And writing about the During means being back in the During — means having to remember what it felt like to be a confused 12, 14, 16 year old, being back in that body, being back in that disembodiment.

I’m thinking a lot about writing violence, how violence is portrayed, who gets to wield it unreservedly, even in fiction.

There have been two sharp spotlights of surprise in all this media consumption of violence against women. The first was while my sweetheart and I were watching the Sopranos (please don’t ask how I got myself watching this show that I managed to avoid watching for all these years), and in one episode, a woman simply picks up a gun and shoots in the chest a man (her fiancee) who had hit her in the face. I couldn’t help it — I cheered.

The other while watching Queen Latifah’s portrayal of Bessie Smith in the HBO movie Bessie. The movie gives us Bessie Smith as an absolutely take-n0-shit kind of woman — in one of the earliest scenes (spoiler alert), Bessie is fooling around, drunkenly, with a guy in an alleyway back behind a theater where she’s performing. Her back’s against the brick wall, they’re having a good time, and then he’s trying to pull down her drawers, which she doesn’t want, and she says no. He keeps pressing, pushing her to go further than she wants. She knocks his hands away, and he punches her hard in the face, knocking her over, and curses her. While she’s bent down, and he’s preparing to go ahead and take what she wouldn’t give him, she picks up a shard of glass. She straightens up and stabs him in the side, doubling him over. Then she stands over him and says something like, I said I wanted to fool around, but I didn’t want all that, damn. And it was just getting good, too. Then she kicks him, not hard, just a kind of nudge — a sharp nudge. Her brother bursts out of the back door, frantic — it’s time for her to go on stage. So Bessie leaves the guy bleeding, goes back into the theater, dons her costume, rushes out on stage and sings for a packed house, with a bleeding cut on her head.

I cheered then, too.

There are several moments in Bessie, actually, where we get to see her bashing back on the men who expect her to simply and unquestioningly comply with their wishes, sexual and otherwise. She doesn’t appear to hesitate, just turns the violence they do to her right and exactly back onto them. And because they don’t expect it, don’t expect any woman to fight back, to stand up for themselves, to say no and have the full power of their strength and agency behind that no, the men are astonished at Bessie Smith — I was astonished, too, because I, too, have been conditioned not to expect any woman to fight back, to stand up for themselves, to say no and have the full power of their strength and agency behind that no.

It gets beaten out of us. It gets terified out of us. It gets silenced out of us.

Around the time I watched Bessie last fall, I said to my sweetheart, what if women’s violence were a more common response to men’s violence? It isn’t the solution I want for us as a human race, and yet, just today, I want all of us armed with knives and coat hangers and guns and shards of glass. I want all of us put through tae quan do training, I want all of us fully aware of our phenomenal strenghth, not just internally but externally — in our biceps and quads, in our jaws and teeth. How many men would keep shoving their dicks in mouths that are absolutely willing to bite down hard enough to sever flesh from flesh

Do you think men will stop their violence on their own? Do you think they will be peacefulled, yoga’d, west-coast-Buddhist-ed out of it? Do you think those ecstatically-dancing, hippie Burning Man guys aren’t beating their girlfriends, sexually assaulting drunken female rvelers (who thought they were hanging out with friends in a place of peace and love and new possibility), aren’t expecting that the new order will still have them absolutely in control?

Think again.

“Listen, I know this is a bit of a dreary story. But whenever I get told that, by friends, or agents, or editors, or publishers, I think, if this dreary story is hard for you to live with, how are we supposed to live with you?” – Lidia Yuknavitch, “Explicit Violence

Are we still really wondering whether no means no? Are today’s college-age men learning something that their older brothers didn’t learn?  Are they doing it differently? You saw the study last year announcing that nearly a third of college-age men in this country say they’d commit rape if they thought they could get away with it: “When combined with what the study’s authors described as ‘callous sexual attitudes,’ the results suggest a man with a hostile attitude toward women may view “forced intercourse as an achievement,” and a woman saying ‘no’ could be ‘perceived as a token resistance consistent with stereotypical gender norms.’”

Also last year, in a story about affirmative consent (which means that folks get to say yes to sex they want, instead of it being all right for someone to fuck them just because they didn’t hear her/him/hir say no loudly enough), the author wrote: “Studies have found these stereotypes, even in the age of hookup sites like Tinder, to be generally true. Men tend to rely on nonverbal cues in interpreting consent (61 percent say they get consent via body language), but women tend to wait to be asked before signaling consent (only 10 percent say they give consent via body language). No wonder there’s so much confusion.” (“Affirmative Consent; Are Students Really Asking?” New York Times, 7/28/15)

Confusion. Aha — that’s what we’re calling it.

Here’s the thing: They’re not confused. We’re not confused, no matter how long (like, centuries) they’ve worked to convince us otherwise.

Is it any wonder that I can’t listen to the news these days. I look up stories of women who fight back —

And right here is when I stopped writing last fall — I looked up links to those stories of women who fight back against men who are assaulting them, and was overwhelmed with all the stories from around the world of women being attacked by men, page after page after page. I couldn’t read through even a fraction of them just to pick out two or three links, no matter how much I wanted to show you a couple of the women who said No More and “won.” But instead, guess what I found? You know. You know what happens to many women who say no more — they’re jailed for killing the men who’ve been abusing them for years, for fighting back against the rapist (against whom they have to fight back if they want to be taken seriously as “victim” rather than “tease”) — or they’re killed.

There’s a reason many of us keep our old Hothead Paisan books in easy reach.

I just tried again to find those links. And had the same experience. So let me just link here to Home Alive in Seattle — the organization that formed in the wake of the murder of Gits’ singer Mia Zapata in 1993, which offers self defense classes and information rooted in social justice analysis. This is a group of folks who said No More, and are still alive, still fighting, not giving any ground to the folks who want to hold on to the license to rape offered by the so-called confusion about what the words yes and no mean, and yet also holding out hope that a different world is possible (to paraphrase the tagline of the US Social Forum), with heads held high, shoulders back, eyes up, unashamed of our strength, unashamed of our survival, unashamed of all the truths we have to tell, and honoring every bit of the myriad ways we fight back every day of our lives. 

Thank you for your resistance. Thank you for your resilience. Thank you for your words.

What it’s like

 It wasn’t that she hadn’t tried to keep up. Her outside mouth had bantered with them about the uses of rape in film, about job prospects, about the NASDAQ. She’d let them take her out to dinner, take her to bed. She’d thought that would save her. They didn’t see the hands rising from the earth to pull at her ankles and shins, drawing her backwards. The fingers were sticky and cold, reached down inside her throat, pulled out her heart and breath, threw them down to the bottom of the hill. She turned back. At the bottom of the hill, she had just dusted off the quieting beat of her heart, readying to swallow it whole, when she saw the man with the knife. She turned to run back up the hill, but her legs wouldn’t work, and the meat of her heart was stuck in her throat, so she could not scream.

The gravity around her thickened. It brought her to her knees, dropped her onto all fours, then onto her belly like a slug. Friends and classmates tossed conversation over her head like a football. She waited for them to notice, shame rinsing all of her limbs. She dug her fingers into the soil, grabbed hold knots of oxalis, pulled hard, slowly inched forward. The man with the knife gained on her, and the screams that pushed up from her belly caught beneath her heart. Around her, friends and classmates studied for exams, had love affairs, graduated, travelled to Europe on Fullbrights, joined bands, wrote books, made movies. They got married, had babies, raised families, stopped drinking, got clean, got divorced or stayed married, made love, had affairs, made money, built lives. She was still trying to get away from the man with the knife. Her muscles ached; adrenaline made her body a thing of tremor and ice. Behind her, the man with the knife got closer. Gravity had no hold on him. Ahead, her friends disappeared. They crested the hill, went to grad school, joined firms, took jobs, joined the army, started 401Ks and college savings accounts, bought cars and houses and dogs. Even if she’d had a voice in her throat, there wasn’t anyone to hear her except the man with the knife, who was always almost upon her and knew all of her secrets already anyway. She tore the skin on her fingers, dragging her body up the hill, waiting for a plunge of pain between her shoulder blades.

Perhaps she climbed for an hour. Perhaps one hundred years.

One day, when her friends were long gone, the no that had been rising in her throat, the shards of her resistance, finally forced its way around her heart and slipped into the air. Her heart fell with a thunk through her throat into her chest, and began to beat again. The man with the knife stopped, turned away, disappeared. There was no fanfare, no graduation ceremony for this, her life’s singular achievement. There were no reparations because her abduction didn’t have hands or arms, nor confines that anyone else could see. She stood up easily, now, her body barren, her palms empty. In the trees, the birds made their usual noise. At the top of the hill, she looked around, but all she heard were crickets, cicadas, the dark-eyed juncos hovering over the meadows, snapping at gnats and mosquitoes. No one responded to her calls. She started walking in the direction she’d last seen everyone walking — they couldn’t have gotten far. Wasn’t it just yesterday they’d crowded around her, talking over and beyond her, touching her shoulders and ass, laughing and spilling bourbon in her hair. She told herself the old stories, over and over, as she walked, so she wouldn’t forget where she’d been.

But no matter how long and how far she walked, she never caught up with those who’d gone before. Now and then she ran into another straggler on the path, haggard and limping, leaning on an old carved walking stick, hair wild about the face, eyes carrying sadness like a color. They mumbled the old stories, the man with the knife. She looked at them with pity— such a long time they must have been walking. She was lucky, hadn’t didn’t have so far to go. She patted them on the shoulder, met their sad eyes with her own, and walked on.

goodbye little apartment

IMG_2982For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been packing up the apartment I’ve lived in since March, 2012, the place I moved into after my last relationship ended, the place I found when I was looking for a home for my writing and my workshops.  Tomorrow I’m moving out.

I walked into this apartment less than a week before I had to leave for a two-week long writing retreat. I told myself I had to find a place to live before I left for the retreat, because as soon as I returned from the retreat, I was going to have to move out of the place I shared with my ex. This apartment was the second one I visited — the first was in a huge apartment complex up in the Adams Point area back behind the Whole Foods in Oakland, a smoky and dank building, and the only impression I still have of the unit I walked into (and quickly walked out of ) is grey. And no. I knew exactly where I wanted to live — someplace on the west side of the Lake Merritt, in between Lake Merritt and downtown Oakland, within walking distance of BART. Then I found the craigslist ad for this dog-friendly one-bedroom in a 1920s building just a block from Lake Merritt, and a ten-minute walk from three different BART stations. I replied to the ad immediately, and the landlord wrote back, with details about the apartment, no pictures, and an application he encouraged me to complete ASAP so that they could run my credit. I thought, That’s ridiculous. Why would I apply for an apartment I’ve never seen? And send all of my personal information off to someone I’ve never met. This could be a total scam, someone harvesting personal data for internet fraud. And then I completed and sent in the application. I had a feeling. (But first, I called the landlord, wanting to make sure there was at least a real person on the other side of that email address.)

I knew the moment I walked into the apartment, still cluttered with the previous tenants’ belongings, that I’d take it — a spacious corner unit with lots of good morning light, a living room area that would be big enough to hold a circle of writers, and then, to my astonishment, a second little room (too small to call a second bedroom) that would be my office. My office. My own writing room. Yes, I said. Yes, I’ll take it. I gave him the deposit immediately, signed the lease on the front steps of the building, and then had to hurry into town because my ex was throwing me a big 40th birthday party at the CSC, and I was late. Three days later, I had the keys to my new apartment, and I went in to visit and sort of claim the now-empty apartment, taking pictures and showing it off to my new friend Ellen (who was about to become quite a bit more than a friend, though I don’t know that either of us knew just how much more). I left something small — a shell or a note or a pen or something to introduce myself and my energy into the space, to say, hello, this is me, I’ll be back soon.

Then I went away to a two-week writing retreat, during which time I exploded with all the change that I was about to undergo, after so many years of struggle and resentment and sorrow and need.

Then I went to LA and watched my sister marry her beloved.

Then I came back to Tiburon, finished packing up, and moved out. (Let’s not kid ourselves: those four days were a hell of a lot more stressful and heartsore than that sentence lets on).

I’ve lived in this apartment for almost three and a half years, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else since moving to the Bay Area in 2003. It became exactly what I’d hoped it would, exactly what I needed: a sanctuary, a writing place, and a home for Writing Ourselves Whole. I painted (well, with a lot of help) the walls bright orange and yellow, sage and cream. I put up chimes and paintings and all the books, created a library that workshop writers could use.

And tomorrow I’m moving out.

Here are some things I want the next tenants to know:

– Don’t run an electric tea kettle (plugged into the kitchen counter socket) and the vacuum (plugged into the living room socket) at the same time — you’ll blow a fuse, and the fuses are old and weird and hard to find in any of the local convenience stores. The Ace down in Jack London Square has them, though.

– There are a thousand small birds that live in the live oak tree back behind the building, and if you hang a feeder from the big nail over the one living room window that faces the Scottish Rite Center parking lot, they’ll come visit you: chickadees, house finches, phoebes, sparrows — the mourning doves will hop around on the bricks of the windowsill, cooing their song and cleaning up what the smaller birds let fall.

– If you stand on a chair in the living room, the apartment has a lake view.

– If you’re out at the lake early enough in the morning, you can say hello to the couple who run around the lake every day and wave hello and smile at everyone they pass. You can also watch the fog lifting off the Oakland hills, and say good morning to the blue herons, white egrets, mallards, cormorants, coots, pelicans, Canadian geese,and goldeneyes. You can say hello to the night herons, too, but they’ll just stay hunched on their branch or rock and pretend not to have heard you.

– The streets of downtown Oakland in the early morning when you’re walking to BART (or to a CODA meeting, say) are cool and clean and all the people will look you in the eye if you say good morning.

– The natural foods store up 15th on Jackson isn’t any more expensive than the Whole Foods that’s a mile away, and they’ve got plenty of bulk food and all the workshop snacks you need.

– The ficus trees surrounding the parking lot across from the 13th st Post Office are home to night herons and crested egrets. If you hang out on the corner of 14th and Jackson in the evenings, you can listen to them singing their nighttime songs, and watch some of the trees become studded with the sharp white heads of nesting egrets.

– The big, dark, bald man who sometimes walks up Madison preaching to a congregation you can’t see will teach you things you never knew were in the Bible if you keep your windows open and listen.

– The skinny Latin@ butch who manages the building across the street, the one who always has a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, her eyes squinted against both sun and smoke, the one who looks like she could easily take out a man twice her size in a  bar fight, has two tiny Chihuahuas that she murmurs to in baby talk, and will love on your dog, if you’ve got one, and if you let her.

– The nasturtium and alyssum and geranium in the window box will reward you if you give them water now and again. In the springtime, don’t be surprised when the sharp gladiolus leaves knife through the shallow soil and rise up into green stalks loaded with heavy, quilted yellow flowers. The hummingbirds come visiting then.

– The women behind the counter at Maly’s will give you a handful of extra glazed donut holes when you wander in on a Friday morning, you and your sweetheart barely out of pajamas and your hair still showing all of the previous night’s joy, and order two donuts each, plus two cups of decaf coffee; then take your bag of flour and sugar and your cups of caffeine and cream to the morning lakeside to throw a bright orange ball for your dog and lean heavy into your love and wonder.

– There are four-leaf clovers to be found in the green lawns all around your side of the lake.

– If you’re out late enough, and at the right time of year, you can sit out by the lake and listen to the frogs serenading the light-encircled waters.

– Keep an eye on the waters; you never know when innumerable tiny moon jellyfish will swarm through the murk, opening and closing the mouths of their bodies, latticing the dark water with their legs.

– Keep the back door of the building closed, so that the many cats belonging to your downstairs neighbor don’t run out; and don’t be surprised to find yourself being observed by a cat or two climbing the building’s inside while you’re sitting in your new writing room, singing a song of astonishment to yourself, unaware that anyone can see or hear you through the window that you thought only looked out on nothing.

– Don’t be surprised if you get a little jolt of joy when leaning into the doorjamb of the writing room. Or the bathroom. Or the bedroom. Or the place next to the back windows where two bodies would fit if you put your couch there where they could kiss for the first time.

Thank you, little apartment, for helping me learn a little more what home can mean. I carry your color and quiet and the yes you allowed me to bring to my writing and the rest of my work with me into this next home.

allowing ourselves anticipation anyway

(A little talk of sexual violence and psychological control today — just know that ahead of time.)

~~ ~~ ~~

Hope, he said, it’s as insidious as bitterness.

If mother earth only knew how much we
loved one another she would creak, shudder,
 
and split like a macheted melon, releasing
the fiery ball of molten hope at her core.
– from “Hoffnung,” by Amy Gerstler

Good morning grey — feels like fall is coming, though I know we’re not nearly done with San Francisco Bay summer. I’m listening to my new favorite Pandora station (Ulrich Schnauss, how come nobody told me about him before?) and trying to stop fidgeting long enough to find my way down into the words. All the surfaces of me are stuttery this morning, flaking off into douse and drain, peeling away to remind me you need to do this thing don’t forget about that and underneath it all are the words, really? really?

I woke up calm this morning, calmer than I think I ought to be given that I’ve got  job interview today, given that my life is changing completely. Maybe we’ve been through this so many times before in our lives that my body has burnt out all its fuses and worn out its shocks. Ok, another total life change today. Gotcha – Right on. What’s for lunch? 

What do I want to say about this? When the rush comes, I’m still here under the blankets with the radio flowing into my headphones the volume turned all the way up, trying not to hear the world outside, trying to keep the monster voices at bay. When the rush comes, I’m still trying to make sure it passes me by: nobody here but us chickens. When the rush comes, I’m the one behind the rock — maybe if they don’t see me, I’ll be ok. What are the parts in us that keep hiding, so many long, long years after the violence has ended? I take a sip of soy-milk coffee, too dry even to cry today.

This is where this is going: On Monday I go to my first class, my first grad school class, my first class toward my MFA in Creative Writing, the fourth creative writing class I’ve taken in my life (the first one was in college, and the second was a friend’s private poetry seminar, and the third was a Saturday afternoon poetry writing class with Alison Luterman through the Writing Salon). Shouldn’t someone going for their MFA have taken a few more classes? But so much of the school we enter into as writers is unofficial, is self-driven, is all about the hours and days and years we plunk ourselves down in front of the notebook and just keep on writing. Oh, and all that reading — turns out that was school, too, and not just a way to dissociate from life or hide from responsibility (so there, innner critic).

Anyway, on Monday I go to my first class. Yesterday I got my student ID. I’ve wandered around campus, learning the back alleyways, the hidden-ish gardens, finding the places I will eventually want to haunt. Last Monday, after the grad student orientation, I came home electric with excitement, and stayed up until after 11 looking at my schedule, planning out the next three years’ coursework, trying to figure out how to take all the classes I want to take (creative writing classes and workshops, of course, sure, but then there are critical theory classes, and neurolinguistics, and composition instruction theory courses, and the one about psychoanalytic approaches to literature, and…). My body vibrated the way it does when we’re plugged into something that brings our whole self together, when we’re deeply curious and problem-solving, when anticipation and delight has fully taken over everything inside the skin.

And then the next morning that inside reverberation was gone, and as the week has gone on, my body has got quieter and quieter. This is old learning: too much eager charge, and the body shuts it down. Those places of electric possibility are muffled now, taken over by a throb of wait and see wait and see wait and see

That throb is the voice that remembers the old lessons, how every deep interest and enthusiastic curiosity was used by my stepfather against me, to use as leverage either to pull me more deeplyinto his madness or to force me into a state of complicity (you were excited about it too!) or hold over me, withhold access to, unless I did what I wanted. Or he just took it away. Interested in English and creative writing? He drove it into the ground, ridiculing anyone who would find themselves drawn to such a waste of time and talent. Excited about a boyfriend, a classmate I could actually talk to, a friend who might call to see if I wanted to hang out on the the weekend? He derided them, detailed their shortcomings and their intentions, then demanded that I not spend time with them anymore, following up repeatedly to make sure that I wasn’t disobeying him. Interested in theories of interface or database design? He found new research or books, sent them to me at college and then called me up, wanted to talk about them, waited until my voice was thick with inquisitive thrill, then ordered me to masturbate for him: that was the penance for falling into his trap, for allowing myself to be deeply drawn to anything. Anything I loved or let myself get attached to, idea or object or person, could and would be used against me. When would I learn?

This body learned hard, and when there’s too much excitement, too much of that shuddery, stuttery vibration that means we’re letting ourselves look forward to something too much, want something too much, she gets terrified and shuts us down. She says, just wait. Let’s see. Don’t get your hopes up — you never know what might happen. Maybe the financial aid will fall through. Maybe you didn’t register right for classes after all. Maybe the school is going to call you tomorrow with an embarrassed message: We’re so sorry, we made a mistake, we meant to admit this other Jen Cross, the one who is much smarter, much more interesting, much more accomplished. We apologize for any inconvenience to your life.

Does this voice ever go away, do these old lessons fade into the background of the body’s knowing? Surely we don’t forget all the survival strategies, the ones we use in the outside world and the ones at work always inside our hearts and psyches, but maybe eventually we can let ourselves trust something good.

Can you do that easily, trust something good? Of course I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Of course I am. There’s that part of me that’s leaning out with one hand to its ear, waiting for the bad thing to come up and take away what we have let ourselves slip some small tendrils around,what we have let ourselves get curioous and adoring of, what we have let ourselves want or love –it takes a long time for that part to be satisfied that we’re safe. (What am I saying? Has she ever been satisfied that we’re safe? She’s leaning out right now, listening for the sound of a jail cell opening, afraid he might be released without anyone telling us first…)

On Monday, school will begin, and I’ll be in class. There’s a flutter in my chest as I write that, a tightness and thrill that means the excited part hasn’t gone away completely — she’s still ready to froth us into a lather of oh my god I can’t believe I finally get to do this.

Oh my god, I can’t believe I finally get to do this.

~~ ~~ ~~

What are you not letting yourself, too afraid, too experienced to let yourself get excited about these days? What if you give yourself ten minutes to write in the voice of that elated, buzzy joy? Maybe it’s a small excitement — but we know, don’t we, that it’s the smallest excitements (or the things other people might deem small) that we deserve big celebration around: paid the bill on time, figured out a new route on public transportation, got yourself a space to breathe easy for a minute. Just 10 minutes — don’t worry, watcher parts, we’ll close the notebook when those ten minutes are done (unless the words and energy really take hold of us, and then we’ll just keep following the writing wherever it seems to want us to go).

Thank you for the ways you’re learning to let yourself anticipate anyway, be excited anyway, fill with those smoky threads of delight anyway, even though you know how bad the disappointment can be if they’re taken away.  thank you for the ways you keep on rebuilding that muscle of joy. Thank you, of course, for your words. 

 

on money and class oog

Good morning, good morning. It’s an early morning — well, not as early as I’d hoped, but still.

Things are changing, changing, changing. Next week is the last one before classes begin. I have a group today and a group on Saturday, the last Writing the Flood in our Oakland space on Madison (in early September, I’ll be moving into a different home, and Writing the Flood will be moving back to San Francisco).

I’m thinking a lot about money and class these days — noticing the places where my class consciousness clashes with my class reality. I keep noticing that I have some embarassment when I tell people where I’m going to school:  The voice in my head says, All this time you waited to go for your MFA, and you’re just going to State? All this writing and work you’ve been doing, and you couldn’t even get into a good school? I have this idea in my head that this is what people are thinking when I tell them that I’ve chosen to enroll in the MFA program at SF State. Yikes, right? But I think this has nothing, really, to do with the MFA program at any particular school, and everything to do with my idea of what “good” means, what “successful” means, and how much both of those are tied to money and expense, even after all of these years of trying to get away from our money=worth culture in the US.

Let me tell you that I’m really ready to get started with classes. I’ve just been assigned my advisor (the amazing poet/experimental writer Toni Mirosevich, with whom I’m so excited to get to work). Here are just some of the grads of the SFSU MFA program whose work I admire wildly: Kim Addonizio, Elana Dykewomon, Meliza Benales, Devorah Major, Linda Watanabe McFerrin, Alejandro Murguia, Carol Muske- Dukes, Cornelia Nixon (now on staff at Mills), Anne Rice (come on), Rae Armantrout, Barbara Jane Reyes, & the fabulous Gina de Vries — and, of course, faculty include Dodie Bellamy, Robert Gluck, ZZ Packer… I feel like I have to make a case for this program, just for the classist oog in my head that says I made a lesser choice. Of course I didn’t make a lesser choice. I made exactly the right choice for me. So why do I feel this “buyer’s remorse” knocking around in the back of my brain?

I applied to just two MFA programs: SF State and Mills. I wanted something local, I wanted a program that wasn’t just for “working adults” but was a regular, full-time school program. I wanted to work somewhere where the faculty were used to working with experimental writing, weird writing. I was drawn to State in large part because of Biting the Error (a collection of essays tangling with (and undoing) traditional narrative, which blew me right open with gratitude and exhilarated possibility when I first read it, edited by Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy and Gail Scott, the co-founders of the Narrativity Website Magazine, based at the Poetry Center at — where? — yes, San Francisco State University). I was drawn to Mills because I knew brilliant folks who had gone there, and also because there was the chance I could get a fellowship that would cover my tuition. There are no fully-funded Creative Writing MFA programs in the Bay Area — the only one I found in CA is the program at Riverside — and the fact is that I can’t afford to pay the tuition at a private institution like Mills. I thought I had a pretty good chance at the fellowship, given the work that I’ve been doing for the last ten years, but it didn’t work out that way.  (They don’t make available the information about who got the fellowships, year by year, on their website, so I don’t know who was awareded that opportunity instead.)

Tuition at Mills is $31, 620 for a year. Tuition at State is $6,738 for a year. That makes Mills more than four and a half times as expensive — and that’s just the tuition, not to mention fees, etc., and then I’ve got to figure out how to pay my bills while I’m in school. State gave me a scholarship to cover the full tuition, plus work-study access, and I decided to go ahead and take out a loan to cover living expenses for the first year — if I get other scholarship or other work during my first year of school, I can go ahead and pay that loan right back. I’m still paying for the loans I took out for my MA in Transformative Language Arts at Goddard – I still owe 21,500 on an almost 30,000 loan that I’ve been paying since 2001. I would like to take three years to focus on my writing without coming out completely buried in debt. I’ve been a working writer in the Bay Area. I know what our economic prospects look like. I know how difficult it is to make enough money to pay back big debt (or just enough to pay rent and electric bills).  Take that reality plus the opportunity to work with/around/influenced in any way by the folks/program/institution involved with the ideas in Biting the Error, and the choice, in the end, wasn’t a hard one for me at all.

Why am I talking about money today? Because I feel some class shame about going to a state school, about not having some prestigious name to go with my MFA (never mind that I never tell people about the so-called “prestigous” school where I got my BA). But recently I’ve found myself thinking, Oh, the real writers go to Columbia, go to Iowa, don’t go to MFA programs at all — there’s always a way to talk yourself into feeling like shit, isn’t there?

I think about money all the time. In the 10 years that I’ve been facilitating writing groups in the Bay Area (and around the country), I built a business that got some interest, I did some good work; nowadays, if I tell people I run Writing Ourselves Whole, there’s some chance that they’ve heard of it, that someone they know went to a group and had a positive experience there. I’ve worked with hundreds of writers. And yet, because I had to struggle every single quarter of those 10-some-odd years to fill groups and make ends meet, because I’m setting the work down having no money in the bank, I feel like a failure, like lesser-than. I’m not the Writing Salon, not the Grotto, not able to really “make it.”

What is it that only equates success with money, money with success? Is it even possible to root out that mentality while living in our particular capitalist America?

I’m looking for someone to tell me that I did a good job and I made a difference in some folks’ lives. This is about trying to undo the sense of grim in the pit of my stomach, pull up that elitism that my stepfather instilled in me, the way he force-fed his upper-class-climbing down into me — the state schools are the backups, the fallbacks. It’s bullshit, though. The state schools are the working-class schools, where brilliant (and often, of course, under-recognized) work is happening.

What am I really trying to say about this? I’m soaking in stress and panic, in the decisions I’ve made about money in this lifetime. I have certainly resigned myself to understanding that if I want to live the life that feeds me — the one with words in it, and walks with the dog, and long wanders in the garden in the daytime — I won’t be able to buy a house, say, or have much of any other financial security, in the Bay Area, ever. Because the bay area isn’t a place for the dreamers and the wanderers and the weirdos anymore. It’s a place for money.

But that’s not what this is about. This is about something I’m working out about my worth even without money, about my worth, about the worth of my work, even though it hasn’t been lucrative. About not feeling like these last ten years are ending in failure because I have nothing to “show” for them.

Why do I capitulate to the idea that something less expensive is worth less? Do I really believe I’m going to get 3/4 the MFA from State that I would from Mills? Of course I don’t. In fact, I believe I’m going to get a completely different sort of MFA from State that I would from Mills — maybe these two degrees from these two institutions can’t even be compared to one another. I mean, one feels like more of a working-class place, and the other feels like a middle-class place — wouldn’t that necessarily impact the programs themselves? And I’m going to get a degree unencumbered by the sort of money panic I would have had going to Mills. I’m going to get to have three years not constantly anxious about where the money is coming from. After 10 years hustling, working multiple jobs, putting my writing last, never doing “enough” to “make it” as a small-creative, trauma-survivor-centered business in the Bay Area, do I need to explain what a gift that is? Already that stress has been easing off of my soulders, and I don’t quite know what to do with the space its left in its wake. I feel a bit like I’m floating.

I take a break from writing this post to apply for another work-study job — there’s a position in the poetry center, there’s a position in the library (could I go back in to the university library after 18 years?), there’s a position in the english department. There are gigs as instructional aids for creative writing classes, jobs doing circulation work, data entry, and more. As I write this post, I feel the class shame start to transform itself into a throb of pride: I get to go to SF State for my MFA, goddamnit. And I can’t wait to get started.

what I want to give my sister for her birthday

Good morning, good morning. Here I am again at my little desk, the one with the candles and the mug of (decaf) coffee doused with soymilk. the one with the quiet and the rush of traffic outside that can sound like the waves if I let my ears unfocus enough. The one that settles in around me, drapes itself around my shoulders, whispers, “quit stalling and write now, girl.”

Today is my sister’s birthday. I would like to tell you about birthdays of her past, from when we were little, but I can’t remember any of them. Is this an age thing or a trauma thing? At what point do you quit asking that question? I would like to be able to tell you, when my sister turned six, she had a big party with all of her friends from our school in the city, where we’d moved when I was still in kindergarten and she was only three. She wore a pink dress to the party and my mom made her a cake and all the kids played pin the tail on the donkey  with a paper donkey that my mom made out of construction paper and pile cleaners for whiskers. But that’s not a true memory. I don’t know what happened for her sixth birthday, or her seventh, or her eighth. By her 8th we were living in Omaha, weren’t we? It’s not just big-sister narcissism — I can’t remember my own 6th or 7th or 8th birthdays, either. (Let this be a lesson to you, parents who are knocking yourselves out trying to one-up yourselves and every other parent in the neighborhood when it comes to your kids’ birthdays.)

I want to have those memories, though. I want to have a direct thread to the length of our togetherness. I want to remember more clearly how much we loved each other, and what we fought about, and when we disappointed each other and the secrets we kept for each other. I want there to have been good secrets between us. I know we had them. I just don’t remember.

Today I’ll visit my sister in her little apartment, celebrate her birthday with her husband and her child, and our mother, too. Family.

What can I give my sister on her birthday? I can’t give her memories of Before — we each have so few of them. I can’t give a history, a tracing back through the terror into the place where we loved each other without reservation and had nothing to complicate that love. I can’t tell stories of the little girls we were; those stories are buried deep in us now. I spend two week with my beloved in the place she was a child, and she enters into story after story — about her life at home, about each one of the good friends she had in the neighborhood, about her brother, about grade school, middle school, high school,about jobs and sports — about a normal sort of growing up. I listen with delight, of course, because I love her and I want to know — to have known — her at every age she’s ever been. And I listen with an ache, too, not just for the fact of those sorts of stories I don’t have about my own life, but for the fact of memories I don’t have, either.

For my sister’s birthday, I’d like to give her those memories. Not a different past — I can’t consider that, knowing that a different past would change who we are now, would change where she’s found herself and what a beautiful person she and her husband have made — but an easy drop into memories of a time when we were ok just as we were, when we were just girls with a future ahead of us, with normal struggles and worries and longings, when we ran after butterflies and climbed trees and she put up with all of my big-sister meannesses (pretending the dime is less than the nickel, pretending the garden hose is a snake, squeezing lumps of mom’s thick, natural, brown conditioner into the tub while we were in the bath and trying to convince my sister to tell mom she’d gone to the bathroom– can you believe she would’t do it?) When we argued over how or whether to play together, when she complained about always having to be the baby when the neighborhood kids played House because she was the littlest or youngest one, when we collected leaves and rocks and weeds, when she came with me down the alleyway shortcut home from school even though mom told us not to go in the alleys. When she trusted me to lead her into safe places. When the only danger we knew was a sharp piece of gravel under our bare feet. When she got bubble-gum ice cream at the Baskin Robbins and I got rocky road. When we had each other still, even though mom and dad left one another, when we had to walk into new houses and our parents’ new lives, meet their new friends, keep smiles on our faces even though we just wanted everything to go back to the way it was before. We could always make each other laugh, and used to swing on the swingset in the backyard for what seemed like hours — maybe it was 20 minutes, but time elongates the memory, I see us forever there on the swings, caught in that helpless laughter, not able to look at each other because when we do, we start laughing all over again.

These are memories of the time of Before. They’re still in us, all of it is, all those years, all that hope, all that wonder and the regular fears and anxieties of childhood, all that play and possibility. The Halloween costumes and the May baskets and then christmases in our homemade flannel nightgowns and the dresses mom made that looked like Christmas trees. All the open space of Nebraska and endlessly long boring car rides and dad telling us how much longer it would be by telling us how many songs there were to go yet and grandma enfolding us into her arms with a love that was bigger than we were and a little scary. The smell of grandparent’s basements (that, for us at least, didn’t have any danger in them), the smell of the fourth of July in the middle of the country, the smell of the snow in the middle of February.

These memories are still ours, even underneath what came after. Our stepfather didn’t obliterate our histories, no matter how hard he tried. We live them still. Our histories, our togetherness, our sisterhood: that’s what got us through. Today I can’t bring a fat stream of memory, but I can bring homemade scones and [shhh…] and we can eat dinner together and watch her son play and not have words for what it means that we survived as long as we did to be able to make it into this now, with this new life between and through us, growing into his own memories, erupting with surprise at every new experience, just like we did once, together, for so long hand-in-hand.

trusting that moment of release

Relax_harderWe push ourselves hard to relax right. We give ourselves too little time after too long working too much for too many days in a row, and then we expect ourselves to relax at the drop of a hat. Relax, damnit! There’s only these two days of weekend before we have to get back to work! Hurry up and unwind! The pressure to unclench just adds more stress, when we’re supposed to do it both correctly and on a timeline. We tighten more, knot up a little harder, and can’t understand what people mean when they talk about self-care. Who has time to relax? we want to know. There’s just so much to do. And what does relax mean, anyway, for those of us who tensed up as a way of protecting ourselves from the violence that forced its way into our bodies? Don’t those “Just Relax” people know that, for us, being clenched was our radical self care?

What can relax mean for us, then, when being curled into a tight ball was the safest position? What does it take for us to unfurl what has been bound and rigid within ourselves, to trust that we can be safe when we are exposed?

~~ ~~ ~~

We’ve had two floating-wave days, two too-hot-to-walk-on-the-sand-let’s-get-back-in-the-water days. Days where I’ve been in the water enough that the sea’s rhythm finally entered my blood. Last night I sat on shore, at dinner, lay in bed, and something in me was still swaying, pushing out and sucking back in. Just now I feel it in my shoulders, around and through the deep part of my chest.

This morning I was out in the water at 9am, the beach still relatively empty; the only other people in the water were the surfers, seal-slick in their wetsuits, and a lone paddleboarder who lay prostrate on his board like he was a reverent welcoming the sun. I stretched my body out in the buoyant salt water and did the same, offering myself to sun and undulance, offering myself to morning-soft air so thick it clings to the skin in droplets, offered myself to the tiny minnows flashing around my ankles in their flickering schools. Offering myself to tern screams and sea gull cries and the waft of plover wings as the body of their flock drifted low over the nearby shore. A few minutes later, some neighbor kids came out and took their place in the water, four of them, at first with nothing to arm themselves against the waves but their bodies — the boogie boards came later.

Here is where I lean again into learning to trust being present and relaxed at the same time. My head dropped down below the surface, ears filling just so and what I hear is not the cheers of the surfers catching a swell or the screams of the kids in the midst of their morning ablutions, but the swish of undercurrent waves, my own breath, the roll of water all around me. I close my eyes, just for a moment (I know better than to keep my eyes closed on mother sea) and just let myself float. Just let myself be bouyed up. For a moment, I imagine two hands, I imagine the body of the sea as mother — of course I do. I imagine this as a place where I can relax, a place I can trust. Just for a moment, I lean all the way in. I relax my arms, legs, quit treading water, I just float. Just for a moment.

That one moment, that deep relax, makes all the difference to me, is what I search for during these days at the water. It’s akin to that moment when I’m on the dance floor — you know that moment, when everything is in sync: the music and the gathered dancers, the bass is perfect and I am in flow, my body sweating hard, I am grinning, I am nearly panting, it’s maybe the better part of the way through the night but the dj has been on a roll and every song is good, every song is so good that I can’t bring myself to step off the floor for a second, I don’t want to miss a moment of it, and the energy of everyone is charged and joyful, and I feel my whole body, my whole self, engage. The rest of everything else falls away. Anything else falls away. Nothing else matters but these beats this circle of muscle and sweat and joy this urgency this well-oiled press forward. Something clicks into gear, we are just in the right now, and in this right now, everything is all right. Everything is better than all right: we are safe enough to be all right, we are alive and alive and alive.

That moment of unfurling into the water’s hold is like that, that moment where everything else falls away, and for a second, you don’t have to worry about the to-do list, you don’t have to worry about taking care of anyone else, you don’t have to worry about everything that’s wrong with you or all that you regret or all you haven’t yet accomplished in  your life. In that moment, you are sheer delight, sheer pleasure, sheer gratitude, sheer presence.

You know — of course you know — what it means to allow ourselves to trust anything or anyone enough to lean in and let down our guard, put away the Watcher that hangs out over our shoulder or at the backside of our consciousness and worries the bones of us with its panics and reminders of all that is still wrong, all that is not safe, all that is not healed, all that is still broken — what it means to give ourselves that moment of peace and ease.

That good moment — I got to soak into that today. And it sunk all the way down into my bones.