(Good morning, good morning! While I’m away, I wanted to share with you some pieces from my book, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, which is coming out next month! I’ll post one of these a week, on Friday mornings. Be easy with you, ok? And please keep writing…)
Today I don’t want words, I want the juice of this river, I want to play in the garden. I want to plant new seeds and then listen to the neighborhood birds until the seeds throw up shoots. Some days it’s all white butterflies and green tea. Somedays it’s all the dog and her orange ball and the kids screaming at the school a block away. Some days you’ve done enough healing, it’s been years enough, and you can set something down, remove the practice barrier, the training wheels, you can roll down the window and let the air in because you’ve done enough. You’ve done enough. There are more tears to come, yes, there will be more big ache in this lifetime, but you recognize now that that’s the human condition—not only about incest, not only about recovery, just the whole life fact of this existence. We don’t stop crying and there is laughter in our eyes, the puppy sprawls at my feet in the shade. I let the sun take my shoulders to a dark brown, bake this old, oldest, tension out of muscle and bone. (2014)
The page has room for all of this, has room for my incomprehensibility, for what’s belabored, for the poetry that lives inside all my pretense. The page has room for the scars and scabs, the boll weevils, the torn leaves, the torn skin, the nonsense phrases , the bird calls, the butterfly with the wet and torn wing. The page has room for text messages and daydreams, the old fantasy and the hummingbird right now putting its green beak into the scarlet runner bean blossoms. The page has room for my wilted leaves, for the gangrenous selves, for the parts half clipped and dying, has room for what’s still to be resurrected and room for what he just could not figure out how to kill.
The page has room for as much as you can give it, and only accepts it one way: a word at a time. You can give it whatever words you want, in whatever order they arrive, but you have to stroke them out letter by letter. You give the chaotic story a bottleneck to push through and it will frame itself into a kind of sense. Write it again and the frame, the sense, will be new again. You never write yourself the same way twice. The hummingbird flies overhead—you grab it out of the air, you press its luminescent feathers and rusted-hinge song to the page. You open your eyes wide, wider, to find more of yourself existing. You are how you see. That apple tree, how the breeze reshapes its flow around you, how you eavesdrop on the conversation between those two city birds. You are the dreams you lived and the dreams you left behind. You are everything that got you here and you are here.
How does transformation happen? Minute by minute, and word by word.
As is true for so many of us, writing saved my life. I’d been trained out of the ability to be a friend, had been instructed to trust no one, did not open myself to even my most significant others. The person who knew me best in the world, during my adolescence and very young adulthood, was the man who sexually abused me, and even him I didn’t tell everything (despite his very thorough attempt to convince me that, since he could read my mind and already knew what I was thinking, it was simply a measure of my trustworthiness for me to reveal to him my every thought). The only safe place I could find was the page. I came to realize that he couldn’t get in there (nor, actually, could he get into my mind, but allowing myself to trust that fact took much longer). Finally, I had a place for all of myself to belong. I let the worry, remembering, panic, desire, sorrow, rage and fear out there. Writing helped me to figure out what I knew, what I thought, who I’d been and who I was becoming. I read Writing Down the Bones, and followed Natalie Goldberg’s instructions: freewrite every day, follow any surprising or ridiculous thought, get it all down onto the paper, don’t stop to analyze or decipher, just write, just write, just write. The practice became exercise and meditation, and a process of recreation and resurrection.
They say—those voices of writerly authority—that we should write what we know. But sometimes what we know is denial and silence. What we know is discord. What we know is our words squelched or torn from our throats.
So we write what we know, and we write our “unknown”—that which is uncertain, hazy, confusing, diffusely remembered, unrooted in us. Write what you don’t know, or what you don’t know yet. Write what you think or imagine or wonder. Write your certainties and your fears. Write what unknowing feels like. We need a language for what it’s like not to know what one’s own body has done or been put through. Write the fuzziness and numbness. Write the cycling of emotions. Write exactly what happened—what you know happened and what you don’t know happened. Write the uncertain as if you were absolutely clear, and then write it full of questions and confusion. Write it grammatically incorrect, as it exists within your body and memory: confusions, fragmented, broken, metaphorical.
As young children, if we are lucky, we are taught by those who love us to listen to our instinct, intuition, curiosities—to listen to our “gut.” We need guidance and encouragement to heed that deep inside wisdom, though, and most often, even for those of us not abused, the process of growing up means learning to ignore our intuition. We are taught to do what others expect from us, what makes others comfortable or happy. If we are female, we’re taught to act small, get quiet, and stuff our voices down while baring our bodies for the viewing and approval of others; if we are male, we’re taught to get loud and big, force our voice into a room, take what we want and stuff our emotions down. If we are genderqueer, well, we’re mostly just taught to disappear. We are—all of us—taught that what other people think of us is more important than what we think of ourselves. And we are taught that being ourselves, if that self is at odds with the expectations of our community or those in power, can get us hurt. Our survival instinct kicks in and teaches us how to follow, even if following chafes.
In the workshops I talk about what it means to come back into a relationship of trust with our intuition, that small quiet voice inside that has always wanted to lead us in the right direction but that we were trained or forced to ignore, especially if we were children of violent homes. It didn’t matter that there was something inside us screaming, No, stop, let’s get out of this situation, let’s get away from this person! If we live with our abusers, we can’t leave, at least not physically, most of the time. We are forced to turn our attentions outward—to focus on the smallest nuances of a parent’s or abuser’s mood, voice, actions, so that we can get a sense of their emotional state and thereby hope to keep ourselves a little more safe. We learn how to read their tone of voice when they call us to dinner, learn how the evening is going to unfold by the way they shut the door when they come into the house. We give so much attention to the violent or unstable people around us, and we turn our attention away from the voice inside that knows what goodness and brilliance we’re capable of. We have to ignore that voice if we want to be safe.
I’ve used writing as one way back into a relationship with my intuition. And part of that practice, for me, has been writing messily, taking risks, following whatever thread is pulling at me. I write the words that call themselves forward, even if they make no logical sense, even if I’m confused by where they’re going, even if I’m scared or feel stupid about what I’m writing. Maybe I just hear syllables or nonsense words—write them. Maybe there’s a phrase that wants out that I don’t understand—I have to write it; otherwise those words or sounds just keep repeating themselves until I do.
This is a languaging of trauma, the real world’s song, with its own grammars and choruses. Repeat what bears repeating, and then rewrite the rest. Follow your instinct, and let your pen guide you.
(Thank you for reading, and for your words today…)