Monthly Archives: July 2010

you can see the light and dark of us

Six Persimmons, 13th century ink painting by Mu Ch'i

"Six Persimmons," Mu Ch'i (image from nidrayoga.com/)

In my dream, we’re driving out in the country — maybe it’s Maine, maybe it’s here — and we’re with friends, or someone new. We’re showing people where we used to live. It could be backcountry Maine, or Nebraska.  It feels familiar.  Or maybe Fresh! wasn’t there at first, and I point out to a friend, there behind that poster/picture/board sign of a bear (?), we lived a few miles down that road.  She smiles, thinks it’s wonderful.  Then we’re out on that road, and another friend and I are driving up a dirt section, he wants to see something, we’re in a car; Fresh! says, Uh, Guys? like he’s trying to warn us about something, but we’re off, and it’s not til I get to the top of the road that I can see an enormous tornado off in the distance. I shout to my friend, who’s driving, I say Turn around, turn around, turn around, turn around, and yank at him and the car the way you would turn a horse.  We get back down the hill and Fresh! already has a little tornado on him — he’s turning around, keeping it to his back, then gets out a lighter, and puts the flame to the base of the tornado. The flame diminishes it, then it disappears. I feel proud, like, of course he knows what to do when he has a tornado on his back. Everyone is relieved, and we drive back to a big house fast to shutter it up before the enormous tornado gets to us.  We listen to weather reports on the radio, like at home, in NE. The house is a mess, and I have to shower.  Why?  I go in to the shower room, a huge bathroom that has a shower section on one side of a half-wall, with a break in the middle of it to walk through from one side to the other: bathroom side, shower side.  I take off my clothes and shower, then trade out with someone else. She has to shower, too.  I think we might have been washing something off, but I can’t remember.  We smile at each other, friendly, comfortable — not sexy. Then I go down to try and help clean up. Why was there mess everywhere? I have to close the big heavy doors on some of the larger rooms, they’re the double or more sets of doors that you pull out of slots in the wall, inside doors to close off a room from the rest of the house.  The rollers on the doors keep coming out of their tracks, and I can’t get them to close.  One of the rooms has two, then four or more doors to keep it shut. I can’t close it off. As I type this up, I see some metaphor in it.  The kitchen is filled with trash and mess, dirty dishes — is it our mess? I had thought about telling people to board up the windows, so that glass wouldn’t break all over us when the tornado hit, but then I thought it was sort of showing off to say that kind of thing, and anyway, we never boarded up our windows at home during tornado warnings — we just got into a safe place.

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Last night was the Erotic Reading Circle – we had all different kinds of stories, some quite lascivious, some more sensual, some only very subtly erotic or not at all.  If you’re ever thinking that maybe you don’t belong at the ERC because your stories/poems/essays don’t sound like something out of Penthouse Letters, please don’t worry about that!

Today I’ve got my second workshop with the MedEd Writers — then I’ve got to prep for the reading on Friday night!  Do you want to come out and hear some excellent erotic stories, watch lovely burlesque, all in an intimate, West Oakland setting? Send me an email to RSVP and I’ll get you the location & deets!

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These are the things on the wall around my desk, the images and words that sustain me: Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese (yes, go read it right now.  We’ll wait til you come back); a photo of ironwork window covering (taken during a trip to NYC one New Year’s); a birthday card from a friend, received years ago: walk on the wild side * dance to the music of your dreams * learn something new * make mistakes * celebrate the uniqueness of you… ; a card from my dad: Joy in your heart can heal any moment — it has a drawing on the front, the silhouette of a human containing a big red heart and lifted into the stars on, on outstretched orange bat-wings.

There’re photocopies of Julia Cameron’s Basic Principles and Rules of the Road from The Artist’s Way, and Robin Therrien’s list of How to Start a Workshop Using the Amherst Writers & Artists Institute Method (from her Voices from the ‘Hood: How to Start and Sustain a Writing Workshop for Youth at Risk), which includes these lines among the 10:

1. Put your body there

3. Tell them who you are and why you are there. Be radically honest.

8. Admit your mistakes and your fears. Let your participants teach you. Forgive yourself.

9. Go back again. Put your body there again.

10. Open your heart, receive huge treasure, over and over again.

There’s a photo of me and Fresh!, way back in our beginning, when I still had my boy-short hair; he’s got his arms around me and we’re smiling so big at one another. We were dressed for an evening out dancing with the Butch-Femme Socials folks. I was trying so hard to look like a girl; it was early in my moving from butch to femme. Now, when I look at the picture, I can see that I looked like a femmedyke, just fine, but at the time, whenever I looked in the mirror, I thought I looked completely ridiculous, nothing like the wildly-hot (long-haired, of course) feminine thing I envisioned as what femme was supposed to be. Kathleen was in town and took the picture of us — she was patiently documenting the moment when she really just wanted to get out and dance with the San Francisco butches at Slut Night.

There’s a blow up, beneath that photo, of me and my sister on the porch of the house in the country, outside Lincoln. It’s fall: we’re eating apples and I’ve got on a hooded sweatshirt.  The gender of the child I was isn’t too easily determined; my sister’s gender is marked by the skirt or dress she’s got on. I’ve got the apple tight in my right hand, curled up to my body, and my other hand is resting on my left thigh. My sister bites into her apple; she can hardly get her hand around half of it — could she be two in this picture? Her coat is baby blue, the inside of the hood all warm with white fuzz.  She doesn’t have the hood up.  My sweatshirt is dark blue and I’m either talking or in the middle of a bite.  We both look like eating apples is serious labor; my sister’s eyebrows are kind of furrowed; it’s hard work getting her teeth in there. In the picture you can only see the front door of the house that my parent’s were having built — the whole wood frame place was painted avocado green. Maybe this picture was taken right around when the house was finished; or, no, wasn’t it done before my sister was born?  What you can’t see in the picture is the big sloping back yard, or the fact that the little housing development we lived in was surrounded on all sides by wheat fields.  You can’t see the big yellow bus that I rode to kindergarten the next year, you can’t see the basement where we smashed oranges and lemons and grapefruits against the wall, you can’t see all the neighbors’ houses, the kids we learned to be young humans with.  You can see the light and dark of us, her golden fuzzed head, light skin, my slightly darker-all-over self. My dad would have taken the picture — he documented everything but himself.

What else? There’s Hothead Paisan declaring, “Fen Muh Nist,” with her excellent fangs and mohawk. Here’s the card I found with one of my favorite paintings, Six Persimmons by Mu Ch’i, overlaid with the words of Rumi: “But listen to me for one moment / Quit being sad. Hear blessings / Dropping their blossoms / Around you.”

Here’s the yellowed copy of e.e. cummings’ “Since Feeling is First,” that we got from our AP English teacher, senior year. Dang it, I can’t remember that teacher’s name.  He called all his students when he got our scores in after the AP exam; I was so surprised that I received higher than a 3. He said he wasn’t. I’d had no idea that he even knew who I was.

And, too, the card with a unicorn on it that one of my parents sent to me when I was obsessed with unicorns in fifth or sixth grade. there’s an image of a cow that I cut out of a Marin newspaper, when I was dying to move from the city back to the cows — the cow is in silhouette, it’s evening, the cow is walking up a hill, maybe toward dinner. I taped this fortune to the image, right under the cow: “You are headed in the right direction. Trust your instincts.”

And last, there’s the bottom of a box of tea. Celestial Seasonings used to include these great quotes and sayings all over their tea boxes, so you actually wanted to spend time reading the whole thing because it was interesting (which was excellent for people like me, who spent time reading cereal boxes, bottles of salad dressing, anything else with words on it). This one I found back in the early 90s — I forget if it was before or after I broke contact with my family; I think it was before.  I was trying to remember whether or not I could deserve innocence, if it could live anywhere in me.  On the bottom of the box appeared two things. First, a Kahlil Gibran quote, “Keep away from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh, and the greatness which does not bow before children” — I felt Gibran reaching to me, showing me the fallacy of, the feebleness behind, my stepfather’s pronouncements of greatness, of power and strength.

The second thing on the bottom of the box was this conversation:

A quotation from five year old Josh Catlin:

“Mom.”

“Yes?”

“I sing all the time when there’s nobody around but butterflies and maybe a grasshopper.”

“That’s great, Josh. I’ll bet the animals love your singing.”

“They do and they don’t make me ‘barrassed and you know what else?”

“What else?”

“The butterflies dance when I sing.”

What are the words and images you keep around you to keep you grounded in yourself?  Please keep writing.

filling up, if not spilling over (and pup-love)

graffiti -- child releasing a red-heart balloonToday I am thinking about all the ways we replenish — or don’t.

Slept a little too much, and that only means that I didn’t get up early enough to do as much writing as I’d like to do.  It definitely doesn’t mean that I slept enough. Still tired, but in that bone-dread way, like I could never sleep enough.  That tells me that I’m empty somewhere, putting too much out and not filling back up enough, not replenishing the stores.

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky talks about this in Trauma Stewardship, when we’re thinking about self-care — and remembering that self-care is community-care is care and commitment to the work and the struggle, since, when we burn out, we’re defeating our larger purpose. We can each, always, find even five minutes a day to recenter on wellness, take a break, meditate, breathe deep, laugh hard. These things, even as brief as they have to be sometimes, keep us in our skin.  Let me use I-statements: they keep me in my damn skin, keep me ok with being in here.

So what are the things I’d can do to take care of myself, even without endless time and resources?  Maybe I’ll actually take my lunch break today, take it away from my desk, go over to Borders and read a non-socially-conscious book for an hour.  Maybe I’ll ask for more help — I need it.  What else, Jen?  You can think of things.  Forget that this is a blog post.  What else can you do to save yourself?  You can walk along the water.  You can put your hair up so it doesn’t drive you crazy. You can make a list of everything you need to remember to do so that you don’t have to keep rehearsing what you’re forgetting.  You can write on the bus.  You can look out the window and listen to music on the bus and forget about writing.  You can wear just a little bit of essential oil, just because the scent makes you remember and smile.  You can take more breaks from the computer, from the keyboard. Maybe you can spend the morning at a cafe, with work-work, drafting out what needs to be typed later.  You can step away from Facebook, just for today — Facebook sometimes makes you crazy. You can listen to music that reminds you how much you love to dance.  You can wear clothes that you honestly feel good in. You can get a cup of coffee at the cafe.

Maybe, on the bus home from work, you can write more of this list in the back of your notebook — more easy things you can do to take care of yourself, to fill back up, so you don’t get to where you feel like an empty husk walking around, offering only shadows of smiles.

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Here’s something that always fills me up (no, really): the Erotic Reading Circle is this Wednesday — tomorrow, 7:30-9:30!  We meet every fourth Wednesday at the Center for Sex and Culture, 1519 Mission St (between 11th and So Van Ness). Carol Queen and I will be there, with a group of gifted and surprising writers sharing their words for everyone’s enjoyment and feedback. Will you be there? We have memoir, fiction, poetry and sci-fi — whatever erotic work you’re writing, whether explicitly carnal or not, we’d love to hear it.

And I really do feel filled up after: I feel so excited and grateful that folks are willing to gather to share these stories of desire, lust, longing, loss — of body, of fantasy, of remembering –  I’m always so fucking inspired to be more brave.  That’s what it is.

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Here’s a prompt for today — I may have offered this one before.  It’s one I use at the beginning of a workshop, as an intro exercise (and thanks to Chris DeLorenzo for offering this one the first time, at least to me): write about an animal you’ve had a strong relationship with, whether positive or negative (doesn’t have to be a pet).

I brought this one to the July Writing the Flood, and of course the writing in response was strong, emotional, inventive.  Here’s what I wrote:

This was the longest escape hatch, walking slow and deliberate out the stony front door with my black dog on a short leather leash (I can’t really remember if the leash was leather or not but I have to move on from here) and every day we jumped into a new step of being away, we ran aground of the sinking ship of home, she and I were the one true pair of escapees, solitary explorers in the wilds of midtown Omaha, quiet and concrete bound, we stalked the lush tree-lined streets looking for echoes of some possible future. She was really just looking for the now, I was looking for a way out, and of course, all roads lead to home, led back to that fat grey house with the fat grey man inside, the one who hunched with anger like a caricature of himself, and me and my dog, twice a day, we were free of all our tenements, the concrete horror bled from our veins,  from our ears, she as my one true way to be free.

an exclusive reading this Friday — plus staplers!

image -- black stapler holding a tomato

This will make sense if you read on -- honest.

This Friday, Declaring Our Erotic readers are going to participate in a private fundraiser in Oakland for the Growing Connections mural project (www.growingconnectionsmural.com)!  You can join us!

Day/time: Friday, July 30 , 6:30-9pm

There’ll be food and drinks, all offered for a small donation, excellent mingling in a lovely West Oakland location, plus an intimate erotic reading!

Please RSVP for address — space is limited to about 30 guests!
Notes about the location:
There is a nice garden area outside with 3 fire pits.
The space is wheelchair accessible, however the bathrooms are not.
There is a big, furry cat who lives in the space. Anyone who is allergic should consider this.
This is a scented environment; all scents are natural, organic and from essential oils, however scent-sensitive folks will need to be aware of this.

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Saturday, Fresh! and I went to the beach at Bolinas, and I followed my urge to swim — I hadn’t brought a bathing suit, but I had brought a change of clothes, so I walked into the water, with all my clothes on, and swam around for awhile.  I still have sand in my hair, which makes for a lovely Monday morning, I think.

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Last Thursday was the first meeting of the MedEd Writers, a group of writers made up of Medical Education Staff at UCSF. We’re getting together for an hour a week, with the idea that 1) taking time out for a break from your regular work is a good idea, and 2) making space for creative engagement will increase your capacity for creativity all through your work day.

We are going to have a lot of fun, I can tell already.

Here’s one of the exercises I offered at the first meeting: I brought in a desktop-full of office supplies (sticky notes, dry erase markers, a rotary phone, paper clips, puffy manila envelope, folders, clamps, and many more). I asked us to notice which object was choosing us, and then we wrote like this: for 5 minutes, we described what the object is generally used for.  Then, for 5 more minutes, we wrote about what the object would like to be or wished to be used for.

Here’s my response to that prompt:

The stapler brings the paper together, it goes home in the crunching, it levels the playing field so no thing gets lost.  The stapler rocks in your hand, it clusters the diaspora, it brings the disparate together by force and sharp teeth; and the mouth is always open, it knows what it’s looking for, it brings home the bacon.

The stapler wishes it could be a rubber band, something elastic and strummy, forever changing shape with the desire and designs of the beloved, something that holds together with a force that doesn’t have to be pried open.  The stapler would like to clutch together a little girls pigtails, but every time it tries, someone screams and gets angry. It would like to clutch gently someday to a round pile of papers, cylinder-ing them into something you could look through, then unfurl, instead of hammering always with a force like the loss of hope, like it can’t trust you to stay together otherwise.

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This week is tonight’s Write Whole workshop, Thursday’s MedEd workshop, and a grant that’s due to Intersection. What’s on tap for you?

Telling our whole stories — a collaborative workshop with Sassafras Lowrey!

Coming up next month — I get to co-facilitate a workshop with Sassafras Lowrey, one that’s open to all queerfolks who understand themselves to be survivors, whether of sexual trauma, family violence, homophobia, institutional violence, or other forms of assault, oppression or violence.

Sassafras Lowrey

Jen Cross

Queers Surviving: Telling our whole stories
a writing/storytelling workshop by and for queer survivors
Co-Facilitated by Sassafras Lowrey and Jen Cross
Sunday, August 29, 2010
1-4:30pm
$20-40, sliding scale (NOTAFLOF; please be in touch if $ is an issue, and we can work something out!)

What does it mean to ‘survive’ as a queer* person? The word ‘survivor’ can mean many things: sexual assault or abuse, partner violence, family violence, believing that we’re worth less because we’re queer (internalized homophobia), dealing with homophobia at work, at school, from the police or elsewhere (institutional homophobia), being hospitalized to ‘cure’ our queerness, forced or chosen houselessness (when ‘home’ is the least safe space to be) and more.

Sassafras and Jen invite you to spend an afternoon writing about your larger story of survival, which may also be your larger story of ‘coming out.’  We are, each of us, endlessly creative in the ways that we find to survive and reclaim our power in this society.  Bearing witness to our fuller stories, and allowing others to bear witness to us, can be a way to honor the difficult choices we have made, and decrease our sense of being alone or ‘crazy.’

Though we come together as queer folks who recognize ourselves as having experiences that we are surviving, no one will be required to write any particular topic. In this space, you have the opportunity to write as you feel called to write, no matter what the subject.

You’ll leave this workshop with: a re-affirmed sense of yourself as resiliently creative, a rich body of new creative writing, feedback from your peers about what’s already strong in your new writing, and connection with writing community.

Workshop will be held in an accessible space in downtown San Francisco at Market and Powell: half-block from BART, on several MUNI lines, close to two parking garages.


*and by ‘queer,’ we mean bisexual, trans-identified, intersex, lesbian, gay, genderqueer, stud, femme, AG, butch…

Offered in conjunction with the San Francisco launch of Sassafras Lowrey’s anthology, Kicked Out (published by Homofactus Press and which brings together the voices of current and former homeless LGBTQ youth).

Sassafras Lowrey is an internationally award-winning storyteller, author, artist, and educator. She believes that everyone has a story to tell and that the telling of stories is essential in the creation of social change. Sassafras is the editor of the Kicked Out anthology (www.KickedOutAnthology.com) which brought together the voices of current and former homeless LGBT youth. She is a monthly columnist for Curve magazine, and her prose has been included in numerous anthologies including:  Visible: a Femmethology, LGBTQ America Today, Gendered Hearts, and  Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation. Sassafras regularly teaches LGBT storytelling workshops at colleges and conferences across the country and lives in Brooklyn New York with her partner and fuzzy family. To learn more about Sassafras and her work, visit www.PoMoFreakshow.com or email her at sassafras@pomofreakshow.com

Jen Cross is an extensively-anthologized writer who has facilitated survivors and sexuality writing workshops since 2002. She’s led or co-led writing workshops with activists, adult students, survivors, folks living with a life-altering illness, and many other folks.  She currently offers two regular weekly workshops (Write Whole: Survivors Write and Declaring Our Erotic) in downtown San Francisco, and has worked with writers at colleges and organizations across the country. Jen’s a queer incest survivor who used writing to reembody and to transform her relationship with her erotic and creative self. She spent several years working with survivors of domestic violence and other traumas, individually and in groups, before beginning to host writing workshops through which trauma survivors and others could initiate deep and abiding change for ourselves and our communities. She received her MA in Transformative Language Arts from Goddard College and is a certified Amherst Writers and Artists workshop facilitator. You can find out more about Jen at www.writingourselveswhole.org or email her at jennifer@writingourselveswhole.org

what if we didn’t do it all alone?

London graffiti-- text: "as she dances in the widescreen of her existence"

I'm loving this flickr set: Graffiti it's everywhere (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mermaid99/)

A beautiful day yesterday, filled with nervous energy and a new workshop and a chance to spend some time talking with smart and open-hearted folks who want to use writing as a part of their healing/transformative/witness work in the world.

Was kind of jangly this morning during my writing time, filled with post-’performance’ second-guessing: like, maybe when I thought I was coming across so smart and useful during the presentation for the Writing as a Healing Ministry class, I was really sounding a mess.  This part of putting myself out in the world is a drag; all I can do is breathe through it.

It’s good to practice talking about the work, though: what I do and how I (think I) do it and why.  Maybe I’ll write more about that next week.  There were several good questions from the class, and I definitely want to spend some more time responding to those.

Sharon described me to the class as someone who writes (and facilitates workshops inviting others to write) the body and the body erotic.  Yeah: that’s a nice gathering-together of all these seemingly disparate workshops — sexual trauma survivors, erotic writing, folks living with life-altering illness (maybe the MedEd writers don’t quite fall into this categorizing– but it’s ok to have an outlier :)).

I got to talk a bit with Sharon after her class was over, and that led me to thinking about the kind of folks I’d want to work with at writing ourselves whole — like, when I’m finally ready to bring on other facilitators (since already there’s interest in writing ourselves whole offering more workshops than I’m able to facilitate myself): who would that person be?

This morning, I wrote about that, beginning to imagine:

What if I asked additional facilitators to go through the AWA training and Sharon’s Writing as a Healing Ministry — and, too, maybe the San Francisco Women Against Rape volunteer training and San Francisco Sex Information’s training, too.

I want you to have this breadth of comfort and presence with trauma and with sexuality, the capacity to sit with extreme loss or sorrow or rage and not be thrown over, to sit with desire that you don’t share and not be pulled out of the moment.

I want you to understand the politics of rape and rape culture, of the undulating layers of oppression and privilege and silencing we live with and through in this society, with the kinds of questions and worries that people have about sex and how common those questions are (and how isolated we feel with them nonetheless).

I want you to understand about listening and reflecting, and how witness-listening is labor, a profound act of love, a “doing something.”

I want you to be in awe of the risk that folks take just stepping into a roomful of strangers to write, whether or not that’s a room of survivor writers or sexuality writers: understand that any writing, ever, is vulnerable.

I want you to understand about holding a room, owning and acknowleding your power and responsibility, encouraging folks to get comfortable and to fall into their own work, and then stepping out of the way as the group begins to net together to hold one another’s stories.

There’s more to this list: I’m excited to start this thinking.

don’t you think you’re over it by now?

Tree and moss at Joaquin Miller Park, OaklandToday I’ve got a couple of exciting new things on my plate:

First, there’s the inaugural workshop with medical education staff at UCSF! I’m thinking about freewriting as professional development, about creativity as a team-building practice, and about the benefits of engaging with and encouraging the “flow” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in his books, including Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.

Then, second, I’ll head over to the Pacific School of Religion and spend some time talking with Sharon Bray‘s class (Writing as a Healing Ministry) about writing (about sex and not about sex) with/as sexual trauma survivors.

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I did my morning write this morning in my notebook, so I’m going to share a prompt this morning.  I’ve used this poem as a prompt in several of my workshops recently(just this weekend at the Writing the Flood workshop, actually) and it always brings up interesting, challenging responses. Here’s one of mine (from the Healing Through Writing workshop at Mt Zion’s Art for Recovery program):

Have you gone to therapy? Isn’t therapy tired, now? What about acupuncture, massage, sex education classes?  It was so long ago, don’t you think you’re over it by now? What about hypnosis– that helps you remember all those things that you’ve worked so hard to forget.  Maybe you should quit writing about it, talking about it — doesn’t that just upset you?  Have you tried anti-depressants?

She says, “why not just try and avoid the topic — think positive.  Focus on hpw people are kind to each other.” But there’s no avoiding the topic — rape is everywhere. “Have you read this book about trauma?” One says, and the other responsds, “Don’t youknow reading about trauma just makes you more aware of it?”

Another says, “You should go to the ocean, spend time with your dog.  You don’t have a dog? Oh, I had to get a pet after my assault — it’s so much unconditional love, the only place I can look to for affection with no strings attached.”  I don’t tell her about the pets lost, the dog I had to leave behind when I was running for my life, how raw the memory still is for me.

Someone else can only watch revenge movies.  Another just likes bad sit-com tv where no serious issues get dealt with and everything’s tied up with a bow after 30 minutes.

“Have you confronted your family?  Have you forgiven him?” Another says forgiveness is for fools.  Are these all the voices in my head, just the ping-ponging of possible healing?

So many suggestions — we’re desperate to fix each other, the way we cannot fix ourselves.  “Isn’t it all over now? Does it really still bother you?” She asks, then says, “I read those books, For Women Who Do Too Much, and meditate for an hour every morning, then walk on the beach, then have a nap. You should try it — it’ s great! Why don’t you just follow your bliss?”

And, of course, I understand the sentiment, the sympathy, and I think how much easier it is to follow one’s bliss when one doesn’t have to work to pay the bills.

So my bliss shrinks to fit what time I can give it — 3 pages of writing in the morning right after I get up, a cup of decaf from Peets on the walk from the bus to my day job, a few minutes by the wharf to look for sea lions on my break. Is this really the right way to go? Can bliss be shrunk, baked down like shrinky-dinks into a colorful plasticky diorama to hang around my neck? Bliss doesn’t really get small like that — and while I avoid this conversation with the overly-enthusiastic Follow Yr Bliss-ers, in my heart I know that what I’ve condensed to fit a maddening shcedule is pushing at my edges, expanding like life does, and joy, asking for more spoace and more time: a true, honest hour to spend digging in the dirt, then one more hour to write about it, in as many pages as possible.

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Take some good space for you today, if that works for you.

nothing interesting about depression — except

Thank you stranger for your therapeutic smileThe garbage collectors outside are loud and infuriating.  I want to go back to bed.  I know I’m depressed when every noise makes me insane.  I wear my headphones all day every day, just to get a break from the human condition — I need something else to help me breathe.

I hate how difficult depression is, how thick and tacky, or, not tacky, but belittling.  Swampy, but without the wet.  Disorienting.  That feeling that everything is too much, that feeling that I’m pushing through oceans of gravity, that sense that even the flowers, the animals around, the things I otherwise would love are just impinging on my ability to be. I feel like I’m walking around wearing that lead apron that they cover you with at the dentist’s when they’re about to take an x-ray.  And, too, I feel like I’m being continually x-rayed, like I’m wildly visible, like everyone can see my inside secrets — that’s how thin my skin has become.  You can see my heart working to feed my body, you can see my lungs aching, you can see the deep lose worrying at each and every one of my bones.

Small tasks take on a great weight, they become all I can handle or not at all anything I can manage.  Small tasks like listening to a phone message — enormous. The idea of getting a haircut — insurmountable.  Call for a dental checkup — unimaginable.

It’s a cyclical thing for me, depression, maybe hormonal, but there’s a bigger cycle, too, beyond just monthly. At least I know, after all these years of wrangling with depression, that when I’m here at the low point, at least I know that I will rotate up and around again.  It happens every time.  I won’t stay here, in this overly weighted skin, these heavy muscles, these sad and patchy eyes, these feet that seem closer to and more stuck to the ground, harder to lift, harder to send forward into the world.

There’s nothing interesting about depression — except that it happens to all of us.  Last night all I could manage was TV — it just wasn’t an option to turn on the computer, after being in front of one all day, and look at more of the bits of work that I didn’t have energy for.  Instead we made dinner at home (something that’s rare for me to be able to do midweek, when the workshops are going), and we watched reruns.  We talked a little bit about important things. We rested our brains against the back of the pabulum, the soft serve shows.

These are the things I do when depression weighs hard — I listen to music.  Sometimes music that will help me cry: music that brings out the first layer of the sorrow under the depression, so I can see it, so it waves fat and colorful in front of me.  Reminds me of what lives inside my skin.  Sometimes music that helps me want to dance, sometimes, like this morning, just music that makes what makes movement an idea that doesn’t feel so nauseating, that feels like there are other people somewhere wrangling with the same thing and they just need this steady beat, this no words, this rhythm to remind themselves (us, ourselves), that when things are the hardest, you must keep moving.  Or at least I must.  This is the music that can hold me gentle into the bare bones of my routine: get out of bed (thing 1), write (thing 2), shower (thing 3), move out into the world (things 4-on).

Other things that sing to me through my depression, that can reach all the way inside: phone messages from friends (despite the fact that I leave them myself with the regularity of ice ages); splurging on a cup of coffee on the way to work; wearing fancy underpants; wearing earrings that dangle and sing in my ears (unless it’s also a cool enough day that I have to wear a scarf that the earrings will tangle and get caught in it– that just makes me crazy. Reading sometimes helps — unless it’s a hard depression, and then reading just reminds me that I don’t have a book, and I don’t have the energy to work on getting a book out into the world.  And reading is the one activity I love most in the world (don’t tell writing — they ride pretty close to each other most days), so the stretches when I can’t read, when reading feels like a continual reminder of my failure (don’t you hate those inside voices?),  well, those days just suck.

I don’t take drugs for my depression, unless you count wine, which you shouldn’t, and which I’m not applying at the moment to this current round.  Wine doesn’t help anything except the tears come, sometimes, and that’s only under the right conditions. Usually it just helps to make it harder to get out of bed. Some other people in my family take drugs for their depression — I’ve thought sometimes that it could be helpful to get the drugs, to get pulled up chemically to some higher baseline, just far enough out of the hole to be able to walk upright and look at the sun without squinting in frustration. But then the cycle shifts around a snitch and the weight lifts up off me a bit and I’ve got energy again. I worry about getting attached to the chemical lift, the way I got attached to caffeine. I worry about getting to the place that I can’t function without the drugs, even as well as I do now. So I haven’t tried them yet.  (Once I thought about St. John’s Wort, but then there are all those warnings to keep out of the sun when you’re taking it, and the sun is one of the other few things that helps me when I’m low — so that just seemed counterintuitive.)

Writing helps sometimes (especially the sitting in a cafe with a cup of strong coffee and my notebook and pen, with several hour stretching before me in which I have nothing to do except write). And eating decently does, too (which doesn’t include eating the piles of wheat and sugar that I crave most when I’m in this state and that’s kind of a drag). Being by the ocean can be good, when I can work that out — I mean, right physically next to the ocean’s constant wet breath, hearing the waves, walking on the lip of her life, especially when I can take off my shoes and take the wet to my soles, take the salt and sand. Especially when I can sing ridiculous songs alone to myself and her and no one else can hear us. And letting the tears and rage come, that helps especially — the other night, when I wrote in the workshop and it was one of the times that my own sorrow reared up hard enough during a workshop that I had to hold back my sobs, I felt the depression lift some, felt the full force of life tingling against my skin again, for a little bit, I remembered that I’m depressed because I’m just so fucking angry and sad about what was done to me and my sister and I don’t have enough places–and don’t take enough time–to let that all the way out.

We walk around a lot looking like everything is fine.  We put on our pretty faces and we go out into the world.  We answer the questions with simple lies: Thanks, I’m good!  I’m fine, thanks for asking! Yep, things are going ok!  We don’t tell our honest answers: I’m disintegrating, thanks for asking.  I’m lost and sad.  I don’t know what the next 5 minutes are going to bring. The pattern you’re wearing makes me want to tear out my eyes. All I can think about today is how he used to call my sister stupid, and how we’re still living with his voice in our brains, even all these years later. We think most people don’t want to hear these inside voices, and we learned well the difference between our inside and outside selves.

For me, depression is as regular as dirt.  As regular as morning coffee.  As regular, as normal, as bleeding every month. We do a weird sort of shuffly dance, me and depression.  We recognize each other. I try to do the thing I encourage everyone to do, and be easy with myself when I feel this weight falling heavy on me. I will move out into the day and function, because that’s what I’ve learned how to do.  That’s been my survival. Every dance is different. I hold on to the self, that teenage girl self, that struck up inside me more than 20 years ago, when I was pushing against suicidal, and thought, Tomorrow will be different.  We just have to hold on until tomorrow.  I don’t know  how we came to believe that, all these selves in me: tomorrow often wasn’t different. And yet, a variation on the same horror is still a change, isn’t it.  She wasn’t wrong. Every day there’s something different, there’s the possibility of change and growth and a break in the fog. And so just like I put myself in front of the page to see what will happen, I put myself out in the day. And the gears and cycles just keep on rotating in this body and this life, readjusting and learning and transforming.

man purse, gay marriage & the butch dyke ‘before’ photos.

urban art -- digging in her purseA slow and tired morning, after a great Write Whole workshop last night.  I’d like the day to rest, to reflect on what happened last night, to check out the scores and the memories, to stretch the tired eyes in my back, to find new names for things.  What do I want to write about this morning?

gay marriage, man purse, the butch dyke and the ‘before’ photos.

but first I need more sugar in my coffee.

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Here is the first thing I was ranting about last night on my way home from the writing workshop — Fresh! came down to pick me up afterwards, so we got to spend a little more time together than we do when I take the bus home, get into town at 10:30 and then climb immediately into bed. A young lanky white guy walked across Van Ness when we were at a stoplight; slung across his shoulder and over one hip was a woven bag on a string.  We bantered back and forth, F! & I about whether it was a man purse or a boi bag — to me, it was too small to be a purse, and he was working the young man, not-grown-up thing, so boi bag seemed to fit.  But then I remembered how frustrated I get when things have to be marked to fit a nondominant group.  How do I want to say this? It’s not a man purse.  It’s just a purse.  If it’s a purse when I carry it (regardless of the fact that I don’t want it to be, because I have a prejudice against purses, given the sexist weight they carry, and the internalized sexism I have added — they’re too heavy for me most of the time), then it’s a purse when you carry it, mr. guy.

I get it: you call it a man bag because you don’t want to be caught carrying a purse, because only women carry purses in this culture, and you don’t want to be caught in a fagbashable situation. So we have to reterm the item, when the exact same thing, when slung around my shoulder, would be called a purse.

Once upon a time, purse was just a thing that carried money, regardless of the sex/gender of the person who held it.  My old copy of websters new edition doesn’t have any gender terminology in the definition of purse.  So why this necessity to define man bag (alt: butch bag)?

Here’s what makes me crazy about it — the fact that we have to have the phrase man bag/butch bag to dissociate the wearer/carrier from womanhood, from possible association with femaleness.  And we know it’s both men and women who’d harass the male carrier of this purse as being womanlike, possibly a faggot, for wanting to have a place outside of his clothing to hold his money, his few things.  But don’t I understand the desire to dissociate with womanhood?  I detest anyone calling anything I carry over my shoulder a purse — this is my leftover butchness rearing its head, or just my frustration with societal girlness, this is where I don’t understand why I can’t be the one with the man bag. Man bag doesn’t have the associations with purse, with abundance and too-much-ness. The purse is a frivolity, an extravagance, and a necessity, too — I get tingles of ‘ick’ when I think about it.  Why so much hostility? The purse is associated with moms, practically a part of the body that lives outside of the body, an outside organ — something that live, that vulnerable, that revealing. These enormous things with our whole lives inside that we carry in the crook of our arms while we totter around on high heels — these are our stereotypes and some of us live them. Why don’t I want to be associated with this thing?  It’s a legacy of sexism, of course, and I know it, and still even when I’m carrying a small bag that gets carried over the arm, I prefer not to be reminded that I’m carrying a purse.  It marks me as girl, woman, even more — or differently — than the skirt and heels I’m wearing.  It reminds me that I don’t have pockets enough to hold what’s important to me, because my clothes weren’t designed with them (because gods forbid we interrupt the ‘lines’ with bumps of keys or the round face of your phone). The purse reminds me that I’m the small one, the protectable one (the one who carries your things when you need me to because I have more space in this thing than you do in your pockets).

I want to get over my fear of — no, hostility toward — the purse, not necessarily because I want to carry one (I carry enough as it is, with my backpack and breakfast/lunch /dinner sack), but because I like to root out the weeds of internalized sexism and check them/chuck them out.

Why am I writing about this today?  Because at the same time I’m ranting about guys hiding inside ‘man bag’ so that they can dissociate themselves with the dreaded femaleness, I’m holding the same hostility in my own body.

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Let me talk, too, about the other marked phrase that gets me irritated: gay marriage.  Here’s what I think — the whole political fight going on right now isn’t for gay marriage.  It’s for the right for gay people and/or people of the same sex to get married: straight-married. Legally married.

Gay marriage is already a thing, it’s already done, in circles of friends and some family, in some churches and other sites of religious worship. People of the same sex have been getting ‘gay married’ for eons — partaking in ceremonies that marked them as partners, as loves. The ones that happen now, though, don’t have any legal standing.  We’re recognized by our communities as committed to our partners, but we don’t have access to the same special rights and privileges that are associated with legal marriage.

I’m not sure if it was the right or the left who first began pushing into the media the phrase ‘gay marriage.’ but it’s brilliant, of course — mark the term and make it look as though this fight is for access to something different, something new. Something strange and queer. This fight is for something altogether conventional — not gay marriage. Marriage-marriage. We’ve had and still have the ability to ‘gay-marry’: gay marriage is the stuff we made for ourselves, outside the norm. Outside the legal structures, outside the mainstream. Even straight people have had access to this — ceremonies that centered around community and commitment, outside the structures of paternity, legal matters, lineage, the passing on of wealth, the sheltering of monies, the ownership of women and children: the baggage of straight-marriage.

(Similarly to the man bag vs. purse question, maybe I should recognize my greater comfort level with gay marriage than with marriage — how some of this struggle, this writing, is for me to contend with my own prejudices, where the weight still rests heavy on my body, and inside.)

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Here’s the last thing I’m thinking about this morning — the butch ‘before’ picture. Some  butches don’t have them, or show them, I know, but I did.  Now I have a couple layers of before picture — once upon a time, I showed the before picture to prove that yes, I had once been a girl. I showed my high school pictures to prove what I’d relinquished: girlhood, femininity — to mark the distance, how far I’d come.  Folks who met me didn’t believe I’d ever been feminine.  Now they can’t believe I was butch, and so I show my butch photos to prove something else.  These before photos have a different weight — they mean, yes, I, too, can step into masculinity — just like you can. It’s not as light-hearted for me when I show my before pictures now, my boy pictures. But masculinity isn’t as light-hearted as femininity, is it? (I ask that with my tongue firmly planted in my man bag.)

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More on the butch before photos later, I hope — now it’s time to get ready for the day job.

be easy with yourselves today. xox

sometimes professional isn’t what you need

I dreamed my sister had a black dog, like the one we had when we were younger, Katja.  I dreamed someone was getting married, a thin blonde white woman, she was in a stunning, cinched dress, material clinging and then cascading, her hair up in long tight ringlets, she was frustrated with how tight they still were, she wanted them to loosen, she bounded up to the window, the  mirror, she bounded up and then kept flipping her head over and back up,  over and back up, then she would shake her head in the mirror, she wanted the curls to come loose, not look so tight and obvious.  All the women around her wanted to help, but she was a whirlwind of energy all alone in the middle.  There was more to the dream.  Sarah wanted the dog to come sit with her — mom was there, too.  We were all staying someplace, like guests at a hotel or a rented house or someplace not our home.

I dreamed of a gathering of transfolks, like a community center sort of meeting, and Fresh and I were rushing through for something, we stopped to get water, during the meeting, and maybe Fresh had to check in with someone, and I was alone, the only cis person with there I think, during the drop in casual support space, and I was talking about how going to wedding is so frustrating because it’s broken down, split into genders, just 2, and I wanted that to change, to open.

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My sister goes to the gym three days a week.  I think, for me, there would be something about having the motivating of the presence of other people — it’s a reason that people come to the writing workshops.  Someone said on Saturday, I’m a lazy writer. She needed to be around other people to motivate her.  Is it laziness, though? Or is it just the way one works best?  I’m not motivated to exercise unless I do it in the service of some other task — my exercise is walking.  I walk the almost-a-mile from the bus to work, and always take the 5 flights of stairs once I get there — only taking the elevator when I’m with someone else who needs to. It’s not enough, and by enough I just mean wanting to figure out how to feel fully fine in my skin.  I understand that’s not just exercise, it’s deeper work, too, but there’s the way that I want to know that my body and me are in sync, we speak the same language, we’re wrangling with aches and losses, we stretch loose what’s clotting us, we find a way through in sweat  and soreness to a looser, softer other side.

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I had the second Writing the Flood workshop on Saturday, and have a Write Whole workshop tonight, then the first MedEd writers meeting on Thursday (for Medical Education staff at UCSF — very excited about this one!  We’re working with writing practice as professional development).

What can I say about the Saturday workshop? It was gorgeous — we had nine writers, all different (of course!), each powerful and strong. A couple of the exercises:

  • write about an animal you had a strong (whether positive or negative) relationship with (thanks to Chris DeLorenzo for that one);
  • pull a quote and write in response. We had quotes like, “Long ago I was wounded” (Louise Glück);  “If I had no memory / I would say this is perfect” (Jane Rohrer); and “You were the gentle one (Pat Schneider).

This is what I wrote in response to that last exercise,  my quote was “half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you” (Kahlil Gibran)”

Push down hard into the body and lift up.  Take an angry weight and sink whole into it, lift the trauma into morning.  This is  record of tomorrow.  This is a weighing for yesterday’s distance.  This is a stripping down the bed, burning the sheets, taking flight.  This is a single percolation, the bubble hollow and brown, rising shallow to the surface and turning.  This is singing what used to be forgotten. This is baking the small brownies.  This is feathering the wait with your anger.  This is my long walk from the bank, $15 in my back pocket, feet hard on the cement sidewalk, backpack too heavy on my sunburnt shoulder. This is why you should never have answered. This is all of your questions.  This is the cramps making bloodstains of my hours. This is telling the phone to go quiet.  This is one more inkstained Saturday. This is what I do with all my time.

Outside, the birds are all still quiet, it’s that early, dark staining still the new day’s sky. You are snoring as I lift myself up into the day.  Our house is so old it doesn’t even creak –it sits quiet around my skin, gone cold now to gooseflesh as I move from bedsheets to hallway to kitchen, where I set the coffee going.  I light a candle, and open my notebook, I put myself in front of the page.  These are the only answers I have, pen moving across the paper, these questions, these dreams and resiliencies.  When the whole world is quiet around me, outside cats even sleeping, then I can crumble apart. I can break open, then in that hour. I can see what I am made of.

(Can’t wait for the August Writing the Flood meeting, 8/21, 1;4:30!)

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I want to say something about being with my sister, about how simple and straightforward the weekend seemed and how tired we both were after.  I mean it was a weekend of late nights, of being up all of us talking, and so of course we were tired.  but there’s more there.  Whenever we are together we have more present, a world of history there in its invisibility, how do I want to say this?

When you’re around us you’re in the presence of something enormous.  It’s not just being in the presence of survival, it’s something fiercer, something more carnivorous, or more feral.  Feral.  Something wild.  Something neither of us can control. On the surface we look like normal, middleclass white women, we look like we have good teeth and know how to smile and be polite and kind and gentle, we look like you might be safe with us.  You don’t know what’s about to implode every moment when we are together, near each other, in the same physical space.  You don’t know what’s alive and writhing beneath the surface.  You can’t see it.  Maybe you can feel something throbby and angry and awake, something chaotic, some energy that nags at your quiet places, something that keeps your third eye open and wary, something that starts looking for escape routes.  When I started thinking about this writing, what I wanted to get across was how much of an honor it should be for anyone, you should now what an honor it is to be around us, you should know how much we were never supposed to be together and safe together again, you should know what we have had to crawl through and emerge bleeding from just to sit in the same room together and look normal.  And look normal. This is not a professional blog post, but sometimes professional isn’t what you need.

far away from where we started

Good damn morning, San Rafael – thank you for the incredibly loud noise, the jackhammering, the slamming doors.  Now, yes, I get it: wake up early, Jen, and you will be able to focus before all this starts.

San Francisco graffiti - circle dance. (mpujals' photostream)My sister and her sweetie are here and we were up talking until 1:30, about relationships and friends, about addiction and getting help of all kinds and more.  I set my alarm for 6:30, hopefully, but of course completely ignored it. And had dreams that were sort of about crime again, about being a part of a crew who were escaping, or helping a group of folks escape. Or maybe I was pat of the group that was gathering to bring those folks back in, but they were friends of mine, the folks who had escaped, maybe I was sort of a traitor but they didn’t know.  At the end of the dream, I’m trying to dance up the stairs like/with a teenage boy who’s just sort of learning to pose and preen, and he and I are posewalking. We’re strutting up the stairs to The Miami Sound Machine’s “Do the Conga.”  I can’t really dance, can’t make my body do what it feels, it’s like I’m constricted.  Which frustrates me because I really start feeling the music, or maybe what I start feeling is the dancing.  There was stuff in the dream about getting taken in, caught – somehow I knew that the authorities were coming, and I was a part of the group getting caught.  We some of us went and folded down when the authorities came.  Is that right?  The one authority person who came in first was a tall lanky dyke, and our friend gave herself up, she went and bent down for her, and when she bent over her dress fell over her body, and she was skinner than toothpicks, she had no fat anywhere and hardly any muscle, she was barely sticks, emaciated, starved, gone.

Last night I was looking at my sister while she talked and she sounded like she always has, like my little sister. As though her voice hasn’t changed since we were small.  It’s her forever voice, the one that lives in my body, and I get to have that pleasure because I was already here when she was born, and so I have known her voice since it came to be in the breathing world. So there’s this sense that we’re still small, we’re still young, we still have time – and then I look at her face, and see these small crinkles around her eyes.  This isn’t about calling out age: this is about realizing that small girls don’t have those particular crinkles.  Those are a woman’s crinkles.  We are aging.  I thought, we’re running out of time.  What if we don’t make it before….?

But what does it mean to make it?  We got out, we got help, we have survived new.  But still: I want something else for us, for her.  Extraordinary, untethered, unbounded, unbroken joy.  Places where she’s free of her/our history, moments when we know we did more than survive or get beyond what was done to us – moments when none of that matters anymore.  Days when we go unaffected, when we don’t think about it, that history, that past.

I’m not saying we don’t live joy-containing lives, lives with curiosity and wonder, lives with big smiles and gut-splitting laughter.

Looking at here, for a split-second, I felt like we were running against the clock (still). Like we’re still racing, trying to get out from under him, that past, our separation.

But look at where we were: in F!’s & my home in northern California, eating ice cream and popcorn, me and my sister, here with our loves, together, far away from where we started, and talking honestly about our lives. With no sense that the world would shatter if we told our true stories. With no fear of honesty (or, ok, less fear — maybe different fear).

Look at where we were: 15 years since we both got out, embracing one another at the airport without shame.

Look at where we were: telling our true stories in the dark with our sweethearts at our elbows and nobody was afraid of dying in that moment.

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Don’t forget: tomorrow, Saturday, July 17th, is this month’s Writing the Flood. 1-4:30, downtown San Francisco.  Let me know if you want to join us – there are still a few open spaces.  This is a fun and open space where you can do the writing that you want to do, even if you don’t know what that writing is, exactly, when you step into the room.  If all you know is that you really want to get some words on the page, and (even more) you’d kind of like to be surprised by those words: come on down.

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Here’s what I wrote, several weeks ago, at the last Art for Recovery workshop meeting for the Summer session.  The prompt was a small round mirror that fits in your hand:

She can’t help looking in the mirror, watching the age come.  She knows she should look more toward imporant-er things–the state of the union, the state of her community, the state of her laundry–but instead she peers into the magnifying mirror, peers at hairs that have appeared, peers at new lines and smudges beneath her eyes that makeup doesn’t erase.  And so, in seeing the age and the history, she lets herself see the beauty, filters through into the child face that used to appear in that bathroom glance, the teenagers tearstained smear, the young woman’s rage, the complexifying sadness. She recollects hairstyles and reasons for looking, putting on makeup or using a set of clippers to square off her hairline – her memory of mirror is her memory of herselves.  This is what she sees when she looks in the mirror: the same eyes that have always been there, the same dented nose, the same too-big grin, the legacy of scars that life has left her with, and the possibility and rapture of change

This is what I want to say about mirrors – they can never be fact, because we always experience them through our eye’s interpretation – and vision, as we know is not what, is not a sure thing, not objective or clean, and yet always and momentarily there.  How can we live with these contradictions of self, how can we see in the mirror the legacy of our change and the stunning beauty of our right now bodies, these fragile tender knotty knobby wrinkling cascades of nerve endings that we walk around in, that carry us to our doom, which is every glorious minute of life, and we can accept the flash in any reflecting surface because that sight reassures us: we are here, now. We have to see it to believe it, to believe in self as well as other, believe in now as well as yesterday, believe in the fierce and necessary beauty of our present selves as reflected very clearly and every day in that terrible and terrific friend, the bathroom mirror.