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the responsibility of the writer to say yes

Monday was our first meeting of this spring’s Write Whole: Survivors Write group. For the second of our writes that night, I offered a series of three sentences/fragments — the idea is to choose one (or let one choose you), and let your writing flow in response. Here were the prompts:

When was the last time I told my story?
It is the responsibility of the writer to…
I don’t want to write about…

I used the second of those for my own writing; that fragment was inspired by Grace Paley’s poem “Responsibility.” Here’s what I wrote:

It is the responsibility of the writer to tell it like it is, to tell truths that make no sense, to make poetry out of contradiction, to find the laughter in what cut us to the bone. It is the responsibility of the writer to name the bone and the knife, to put a name to every finger and give the voice of the blood released, it is the responsibility of the writer to talk in metaphor and juxtaposition, to define the bumblebee curl for the masses, to tell about what lies beneath the pretty stones and responsible stories of our history. It is the responsibility of the writer to turn up the stones, to peel back the painted-over walls, to unlock the closets, to look beneath the bed, to translate the unwritten rules, to describe how silence feels when it gets wrapped around you at night, to ask “what happened then?” It’s the responsibility of the writer to follow her own words, to write what wants to be written — even if it’s not what someone else wants her to write: family or community or lovers or friends or comrades in the struggle: what happens if she lets no one dictate the direction of her pen?

It is the responsibility of the writer to wander and imagine, to daydream and fictionalize, to hold open uninterrupted hours with his dictionary, to make up words and re-visualize details. It is the responsibility of the writer to go deeper, to play dress-up, to go everywhere someone tells them they’re not supposed to go. It is the responsibility of the writer to contradict their own truths, to find a third way, to evangelize and desecrate. It is the responsibility of the writer to tell their own story, and then tell the story underneath that story, and then create poems for the story beneath that — to take all day trying to find just the right way to describe that particular blue, the quiet and specific blue of his eyes or his shirt or the sky on the day, on the first day or the third day or the last.

It is the responsibility of the community to give the writers the space and resources to accomplish this wild and peculiar labor; it is the responsibility of the community to offer bread and notebooks and money, to — well, if not always welcome these words, then at least to welcome their spirit. It is the responsibility of the writer to say yes to their improbable creative vision, to grab hold of its great black mane, and give over to this earthly ride. It’s the responsibility of the writer to feed herself — words and water and protein, all manner of nourishment. It is the responsibility of the writer to deviate from sanity, but to keep hold of a lifeline back into the mind that is her right. It is the responsibility of the writer to sing with brown sparrows and canaries, to climb fences with squirrels, to prowl the night with alley cats, to circle hot and high with hawks, to run roughshod over city streets, to bring asphalt-stained memory to the page and offer that terrible, necessary song out to her world.

These days I take what comes and do not push in

peacockThese Days

whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
dangle

And the dirt

Just to make clear
where they come from

- Charles Olson

These days I sleep through my writing time. The words float up like dreams. These days, the stories I want to tell lie quiet at the bottom of a brook among the smooth river stones, rustling gently against one another in the current, the clear water burbling overhead, nothing churned up, nothing muddied or murky, nothing alarmed. These days, I sit by the side of the water, knees pulled up to my chest, watching the little minnows swim by. I listen to the electric sound of the forest songbirds high up in the pine trees. There are dogwoods and azalea in full springtime bloom. Somewhere into the deeper shadows, squirrels search for the acorns they planted last fall. Somewhere, the deer and bear dream their daytime dreams. Somewhere, the man who put his haunting into my chest when I was just a little girl does whatever men in prison do. The moss and loam and leaf mould makes a soft cushion. Somewhere, there’s other work to be done. Inside, there are major and minor tightnesses. Inside, the old drowse of loss pulls at the chains in my chest. Inside, I worry that I should be making something more of this life. I watch the water push over rocks and boulders. I watch the sheer persistence of the water carve out its place in this woods. I watch the dragonfly dip and dive, searching out mosquitoes and gnats. I watch the sunlight pulse in streams down through the fir boughs and the new spring green leaves. I do not stir the streambed with a stick. I do not churn up the stones, searching for what lies beneath. I accept this moment of clear and calm as long overdue. I understand that the work is not done. These days I take what comes and do not push in, do not dig and claw at the surface of things to find the underneath face. These days I accept that bird song, the morning sun on my bare toes, the small splashes that reach for my fingers as I hover them just over the water’s belly, breathing deep and releasing.

good morning to this skin and these muscles

(I am not a fast runner)

Outside, the city is still quiet at this pre-five-o’clock hour. The wind haggles all the trees, tossing them around, telling them dangerous stories. Yesterday when my sweetheart and I were out for a mid-morning run, we looked at the bruised-cloud sky and said, doesn’t it seem like rain? But, of course, it’s California — we all know it doesn’t rain in springtime. Oh, wait. Surprise.

~~ ~~ ~~
What to do with this knowledge
that our living is not guaranteed?

Perhaps one day you touch the young branch
of something beautiful. & it grows & grows
- from “Elegy,” By Aracelis Girmay

~~ ~~ ~~
This morning I am thinking about how excellent it is to have a body, and how astonishing it is to have reached the place where I can think that way. It’s early here and I would like to roll around on the ground for awhile, do some stretching, do some yoga, do some qi gong. I would like to wrestle with the puppy. I would like to be in my body. I am trying to figure out when I can go for a run before I get in the car and head into the work of the day — who is this person?

Something has shifted in me recently. How do I want to talk about it? It feels precipitous, actually, to say anything at all — I have these slight shifts and feel like something has changed irrevocably, but then, lo and behold, it’s been over a year since I’ve had any alcohol, and it’s been years since I could take a drag of a cigarette. My body changes its mind like this and says, I need something new. And I have learned to listen, to attend. I have learned how to hear that the body has needs that are as important as the needs of these words.

How can I talk about athletics or bodies? I have spent all of these years only in my head. This was one of the biggest capitulations, I think, the way I climbed as far into my head as I could after my stepfather his hands on my body, though I never could get in so deep that I couldn’t feel him touching me.

I was an active child, would almost certainly have been an athlete if not for the anxiety I felt about my body, my deep disappointment in my own skin to save me, to repel his hands. I had been the sort of kid who spent an entire day riding her bike around the neighborhood, around the city, weaving and unweaving stories into the air around me as I pushed through neighborhood after neighborhood. The whole city was mine, because I had a body that could take me there. I played softball and ran sprints. I swam and played basketball at my dad’s house — once there was a dad’s house to go to.

The part in me that wanted to move then still wants to move now. And the thing in my body that’s still clenched from the spasm I had back in November 2012 loosens itself when I exercise vigorously — the numbness in my foot abates; this is why I think the numbness isn’t nerve damage but a still-clenched fist there in the part of my body closest to my core, a thing that maybe doesn’t trust our security, our safety, doesn’t believe that we are actually free.

The body carries so much of the story we don’t tell, we never tell. The body carries the physicality of our experience. The body knows and remembers.

I was trained, as a teenager, not to trust the messages from my body — to read every physical illness as psychosomatic; almost any time any one of us were sick, my stepfather wanted to know what we weren’t talking about, what issue we were hiding from that was causing this illness. How come we weren’t thinking our way well? Why were we weak enough to let ourselves get sick? Now, imagine that conversation when you’re not able or allowed to name the thing that is actually making you ill, like a terrible game of “Taboo”: Explain why you are sick to your stomach without using the words rape or incest, since those words are not allowed in his ears.

Maybe I’ve written myself back into my own skin, finding words for those long unspoken truths — the body has let me back in again.

I don’t yet have a lot of language for this body, for what happens in me when I treat my body well. The few supplements I’ve been taking have made a massive shift in how I feel inside my own skin. Eating differently, moving, getting vitamin D from the sun — there’s something about deciding that the body deserves its kindnesses, too, that the body deserves forgiveness, that I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I never learned what my body was capable of. I am loving the experience of physical tiredness — reaching the end of the day exhausted from not just the mental labor of the day, not just anxiety and panic, but, more, from being able to move. It is, I understand, a profound privilege to “get” to be tired from moving my body — rather than fatigued because I spent the whole day sitting on my butt looking at a screen, holding my body in this unnatural position, contortion, butt flat, legs bent and held still, arms up, fingers at the keyboard, head tilted down, eyes tiring from scanning this inorganic light.

How do I get to the words for how extraordinary it is to want to be in my body. To want to feel like I live inside here. To want to be in the body as much as I want to be in words. There is a shift happening here — how words don’t have to be an escape from the body. They don’t have to be at odds with the body. The body can be here, too.

These days I wake up and do a single round of sun salutation — stretching out the back and legs, saying good morning to this skin and these muscles, shaking the dreams loose, releasing them into the whole of this stream of nerves and blood vessels. Later I will lace up my sneakers, put on shorts and a t-shirt, and run slowly and certainly around this flowering neighborhood. I am not competitive about this — I don’t have to run faster than anyone else. I have reached a place in this learning to run that I like the experience of running itself. (Madness!) It’s becoming it’s own meditative process, a place where I can say hello to myself and my thoughts — just like with morning pages.

Once upon a time I came to the notebook to get away from this body, from the feelings here, from the fear and loathing. I came to the notebook because I didn’t want to be in my skin and the words helped me forget what I was feeling, helped me feel something else. Or rather, the words helped me contain the feeling — naming it made it safer. Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe we can still be an athlete of a sort — we can get back to that girl who rode and ran and swam just for the sake of being in her own body’s capacity for joy.

dreams and driving and springtime

We are far too busy
to be starkly simple in passion.
We will never dream the intense
wet spring lust of the toads.
- from “Toad dreams,” by Marge Piercy

In my dream, I am preparing for a workshop in an unfamiliar space — I’d been planning to move the group to another place, my office or something, but then I woke up from a nap and the group was meant to begin in under an hour, so I had no choice but to set up where I was — and anyway, that’s where the people were coming to; I’d never mentioned to anyway that I might move to another location; how would they know where to find the group if I moved? So I clean up, set up snacks, and put the poems and other handouts down on the writer’s chairs. Then I go downstairs to wait for folks to arrive — down into a warehouse space, filled with boxes. It’s a small group, only four or five people. One man arrives, and he says he’s changed his mind, thanks anyway, but he doesn’t think he’ll be joining the group. Someone else hears him and tags along out of the warehouse back into the night. I wonder if I’ll have enough people to write with, whether I’ll have to cancel the group after all.

The next Write Whole series begins this evening — I’m not surprised that I’m having this sort of anxiety dream. These are the concerns of facilitators: do we have the space set up right? Are folks going to join us? Will what we offer be enough to keep people in the room?

This morning the sky is a clear pastel baby blue and the birds are shouting their morning songs above and around the kids shouting in the playground a block away and the morning traffic rising like rush of tide. The dog fits herself into the splotches of sun on the deck. I put on a jacket over my pajamas and go out to write on the deck. This morning I am thinking about the choices I have made in my life to bring me to this place — a writing place, a life with space in it for percolation, growth, surprise, creative expansion, a life with room to stretch. I don’t have a career per se — no big paycheck, true, but also no big commitments: I have been told that the latter tends to follow the former pretty swiftly. This morning the garden is bright orange and red beneath me, the garden shoes lined up at the back door, the gloves dirty and cobwebbed (that’s how often I use them) hanging over the railing.

On Saturday I wrote with a beautiful group of folks at this month’s Writing the Flood — we gathered with sourdough sweet potato bread for words and sharing and more words. For our first prompt, I offered the poem “Renewal,” by Jeffry Harrison, a poem about the DMV, about driving and freedom, and about connecting with the people around you. Here was my response to the prompt:

I want to give you what I’ve got today. I can’t remember if this happened before or after she kissed me and I’d kissed her back, whether this ride was a part of our courting or the blossoming into desire that we let ourselves into after that, but I remember that it was summer in New Hampshire, so it must have been after. All the car windows were open in her godawful excellent Suburban, that tan and white behemoth she piloted through the streets of our tiny college town like a boat she was navigating through a no-wake zone — once we broke free of the city limits and hit the open back roads, she’d hit the gas like opening the throttle and we were free. The fields were all deep summer corn and queen anne’s lace, the sun that shallow bright, the sky an enormous blue, and I leaned my head out her window like a dog, my long hair flying all around my face.

I wasn’t supposed to be there with the smell of new cut grass and pastureland and musk coating my face. I wasn’t supposed to be with her, to be out of reach of the phone in my tiny single dorm room, be anywhere my stepfather couldn’t reach me. Later, when I went home the following quarter, I would admit to the affair, to my desire, and have it used against me like a knife — but I would tell no one about how we road in that giant truck like we mattered, listening to her worn-out Two Nice Girls tape, me without even my license yet, vibrating with hunger and terror — I can’t remember if I thought it was just a momentary escape from the true webbing of my reality or if I saw a glimmer of what my life could really be like if I could get away from him. But get away from him wasn’t a part of my vocabulary yet then. All car rides ended eventually, and led right back to his front door.

 

Tonight! PPO – the He Is Risen edition

siredIt’s that time again!

On the night before Easter, join the Perverts Put Out! gang for a celebration of the Vernal Equinox, unexpected res-erections, and all things springlike and new, tra-la! It’s the annual He Is Risen edition, featuring a passel of brilliant perverts including Jen Cross, Daphne Gottleib, Philip Huang, horehound stillpoint, Naamen Tilahun, Hew Wolff, musical guest Jon Ginoli of Pansy Division, and your intrepid hosts Dr. Carol Queen and Simon Sheppard.

Saturday, April 19th
doors 7:00, show 8:00
The Center for Sex and Culture
1349 Mission Street, San Francisco
$10-25 sliding scale, no-one turned away. A benefit for the
Center for Sex and Culture.

See you there!

being without a soundtrack

Good morning, good morning. It’s a Saturday and I let myself rise without an alarm. In my dreams — I can’t remember my dreams, actually. Maybe they will come back as I write. My hands are dry and rough from gardening last night, and my body is a good kind of sore, the sort of sore that says I’ve been working in it. Yesterday I found pea and clover sprouts when I went down to water the garden — and the zucchini’s already putting out flowers — things are happening down in that good dark. I dug up a patch of hard-packed yard out in front of the house, added some planting soil to the clods that I broke up by hand, and then planted poppies, zinnia, and the native gardenia that I got from my friend Alex and have moved now three or four times. I clipped some pieces of salvia, lavender, and mint from the backyard and have put them in jars in the kitchen window to see if they will sprout. Once they’re ready, I’ll add them to this little garden coming together out front.

When I fell asleep last night, the house smelled of actually-sour sourdough bread — I made a couple of whole-wheat oat loaves yesterday, and though they didn’t rise as much as the white-flour loaves have (and are still nothing close to the chewy, holey sourdough that I get in restaurants or from the market), they have a tight crumb and taste fantastic. I will admit that when I opened the oven door to peek at them toward the end of the baking time, my heart fell — they looked like the sad, dense (and inedible) loaves I always got when I tried to bake sourdough in Maine. But these turned out to be actually tasty — they just weren’t terribly fluffy. I guess that’s not surprising with whole wheat.

So there’s the garden and bread update.

This morning I woke up thinking about presence. I’ve had a few days of quiet alone time, and have spent these days mostly un-accompanied by a soundtrack. This is unusual for me. I’m the sort of girl who likes to have the radio on — all the time. I got a my first portable walkman when I was twelve or thirteen, and I’ve been walking around with music plugging up my ears ever since. The music has been a part of my survival, helping me to get away from the spinning, crowded voices in my head, to get away from my difficult and immediate present. But it seems that something has changed.

I’ve used music consistently when I write — both out at cafes and alone at home, listening to something while I’m writing helps me to ignore the distractions around me and focus in more fully on the words. Having some sort of sound on helped, too, with my overly-developed startle response; when there was some sort of noise filling the gap between my imaginings and the outside world around me, then I was less alarmed when I got surprised by the dog’s bark or someone entering the room – I’ve used the music, the voices and stories, to help cloak me, to help me be able at all to move around in the world. I was so overly sensitive and easily startled that the music could provide a buffer. The sound was like a cocoon I stepped into — a private room out in the world; underneath and inside the sound, I could think and imagine and survive.

Plus, you know, I like listening to music — it’s not all trauma aftermath. Who doesn’t like to push a trowel into some freshly-churned soil while Janet Jackson promises anytime, anyplace?

The last couple of days, I’ve gone running around my sweetheart’s neighborhood in the afternoon. I have a new phone for which I haven’t yet acquired a protective case — I can drop it while just standing still, so I certainly don’t want to take it with me when I go out to run, trying to keep a hold on it while my hands get all sweaty. So I ran without music or voices — no Harry Shearer’s Le Show, no “Dog Days Are Over,” my usual go-to jogging soundtracks. Instead, I’ve been accompanied by the sound of my breath and feet, and the sounds of the neighborhood. I’m able (and even willing) to be inside my body without distraction, noticing what’s aching, what’s loose, what’s feeling good. I notice the gardens I’m running past (there’s lots of time to notice them, as I’m not running all that fast), I notice the animals, I say hello to neighbors. The other day, I saw a stellar’s jay and a salamander in mortal combat — the jay was trying to catch the salamander for lunch, but the salamander wasn’t having any of it, and kept snapping back. The bird hopped up, tried to snatch the reptile in his beak, then got scared away. I stopped to watch, but the jay flew some feet away from his retreating prey — he didn’t want to be observed. I get it: I’m like that, too. So I ran on, no music to distract me, feeling the warm sun, the cool breeze, the douse of my sweat and the spread of warmth across and through my back as all those tight muscles got jogged loose.

It’s still new — this ability to write without music playing, to run without distractions (to run, period, let’s be honest), to fall asleep alone without music on, to be in the world without constantly needing soundtrack or noise to keep me from hearing the things I’m afraid of hearing — that I’m surprised by it, surprised that I want to be in the quiet, surprised that I can concentrate without the noise. It wasn’t, as I often told people, that I simply preferred to write in a noisy cafe with the music pushing into my ears over and above the sounds of the cafe sound system and all the conversations; it was that I couldn’t focus when I was in silence — I was too scared to be alone and quiet in my own head.

Now, as coping mechanisms go, listening to music isn’t all that terrible — and I’ve certainly not stopped listening to music at all while I do other things in my life. But what I’m finding is my instinct telling me one more time, it‘s ok to let this go for now; you’re safe enough now to loosen your hold on this way of protecting yourself — like it did with smoking and drinking and butchness and workaholism and too much tv and overeating, all those different ways I’ve found to put space between my consciousness and the world around me, all those ways I found to armor up and keep myself alive. I am grateful to each of these practices, and just as grateful when one more starts to loosen its hold, giving me one more opportunity to just be in and a part of the world I’m inhabiting, grateful to have lived and healed enough to be here now.

what poetry I need today


as far as I remember, changed
in no detail, the moment
vivid, intact, having never been
exposed to light, so that I woke elated, at my age
hungry for life, utterly confident—
- from “Vita Nova,” Louise Glück

“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

The puppy is in her sleeping place and I am in my morning room. The passion flower vine bursts open with a new face every daybreak. This morning I have thin decaf and an achy body that wants to move. This morning I am ready to go dancing. This morning I am ready to give everything up. It is late — the sun is already well up over the hills. The sourdough starter bubbles on the countertop, the birds push their morning songs into the traffic-clotted air. I am a tangle of nerve endings and possibility. Something inside me is ready to jump. I put dry fingers to the keyboard, then pull them away. The pen sits idly on the blank paper, ready for me to try another way. What majesty do we have to offer into the world? What sunlight can issue forth from us that can compare to the sharp dazzle of the hummingbird’s rubythroat flashing alongside the green knives of the firecracker lily? How can poetry find you if you’re not interested in sitting down? Give me a poetry with musculature, with tendon and bone. Give me a poetry that moves, a poetry that crowds itself all the way off the page. Give me a poetry willing to run alongside me, willing to catch up, willing to take my hand and pull me on when I’m tired, give me a poetry that can keep up. Give me a poetry that wants leaps in in the air, fissures morning, tears all the assumptions asunder. Give me a poetry that haggles the bees, that tempts the mockingbirds, that horns in on shame, that will whisper louder than the voices of loss clotting my eardrums. Give me a poetry that drapes itself about my shoulders, that pushes itself through my earlobes and elbows, that wants all of my attention. Give me a poetry that won’t be ignored. Give me a poetry that stands up on the table, kicks over the glasses of tea, steps in the butter and avocado with its dirty workboots, and takes all of our breath away. Give me a poetry that’s rude and demanding. Give me a poetry that breaks things, breaks in, sidles and insists, claims, orates, and relinquishes. Give me a poetry for today.

the gift of a quiet morning

I am outside on a back deck in Oakland, listening to the morning sounds: the suctiony bark of the crow, the meandering and variegated warble of the mockingbird, the the tidal rush of traffic from the highway a few blocks away, the barking dogs, the gas-powered lawn trimmers and leaf blowers — the kids are on spring break this week, so the schoolyard is quiet: no bells to announce when to pass to the next period, no shouts and screams, no corrugated rise and fall counting through sets of exercises. The sun is warm, the breeze cool, the construction finished on the road out front of the house, and I have a little green tea in a “women unlimited” mug, a slice of sourdough banana bread, and an hour before my first appointment. I stayed up late working on an editing project for WritersCorps, and so slept in, am only just getting to the writing now when the sun is  more than a quarter of the way through her day’s arc — I dreamed through all the good fertile dark time.

The first thing I did this morning was to walk through my little garden in my pajamas and my bare feet. What a deep pleasure this is, to have dirt on the toes while still wiping the remnants of dreams from my eyes. I watered a little bit, checked in on all the flowers, patched up a watermelon mound that the puppy had clomped through, and ensured that none of the bush bean seeds were trying to escape from their little hillocks. The puppy fled to the porch so as to avoid getting sprayed by the hose, and from there surveyed her dew-damp kingdom, ensuring that all was well. As I watered, I was draped with the scents of alyssum, blowsy rose, and nasturtium — the jasmine was quiet this morning. I pulled some snails off my nasturtium and strawberries: the snails and I are going to be enemies. Sometimes it’s good to have an enemy you can see, and lift up in one hand, and toss into the compost bin.

What a gift, to have a quiet morning, to let the body rise when it’s ready, to let the words come as they rise, to sit in the middle of this thing that is life and understand that I am not outside of anything — I am welcome.

There’s work to be done: editing and writing, more planting, phone calls and manuscript response. I listen to the deep inside parts of me that want sunshine and birdsong threaded through them. I check the tomato plants to see if they need watering yet. I read again about how to make liquid fertilizer from grass clippings. I sit with the feeling of exposure that rises after I have written and shared something honest after I have had deep and intimate communion with friends. There are bees in the orange blossoms, and I look for them in the apple tree, bright yellow against the blush of pink on white. Gossamer spider web threads reach from the porch out to branches, clothesline. The birds get quiet and I settle, too. This is my meditation. This is my knowing.

The heart doesn’t abide any answers. Yesterday I spent an hour looking through clover patches, searching for one clover with four leaves. I am ready, I think to the clover gods: you can send one to me. I’ve been thinking this at the clover gods for some months, with no response. While searching, the puppy got to play fetch (just a little, as her foot is still healing from a cut she got last week) and got to roll around in the park grass. No matter how much I want to find that good-luck charm, I am never disappointed for the looking — I never feel the time spent fingering through clover is wasted. That’s the only way to find a four-leaf clover, anyway: to look for one. To keep your eyes open, and to believe that they’re out there to find.

femmelove: you can only carry yourself with your own fierce grace

medium_MissTic3One day, you will awake from your covering
and that heart of yours will be totally mended,
and there will be no more burning within.
The owl, calling in the setting of the sun
and the deer path, all erased.
- from “One Day,” by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Good morning good morning. I’ve been up since 4, seeing my sweetheart and her boy off on an adventure. The song sparrows found the sun long before the light crested the edges of the hills. I woke up tender this morning, struggling with old resentments, struggling with how long it can take to release myself from blame, shame, and guilt, struggling with how easy it is for me to get called back into shaming myself for old ways of being, for not growing or healing faster than I could.

I got a communication from my ex last night and it’s got my hackles all up. Never mind that it’s a straightforward question, nothing overtly hostile or shitty. He never was overtly hostile or shitty — just passive aggressive and ostensibly clueless. We rarely communicate because he asked that we have no contact, and then proceeds to contact me whenever he feels he needs to. So it is that I continue to erupt with feeling whenever I see his name in my inbox or on my text messages: old resentment, directed toward him, sure, but more directed toward me and the self I was when we got together, the self I was throughout most of our relationship. I want to have done things differently from the beginning. I want not to have needed as much time as I needed in order to finally stand up for myself and walk away.

What do we do with big anger, with the old resentments, with the heat of disappointment and shame that still sits in the body? What to do with the who I was when I was with him, who I allowed myself to delove — I mean, devolve — into? How it is that I came to the place in my life that I could say: He promised to change; I should give him another chance. How did I become a person who’d use language like that? How do we tend to the wounds of those we love without becoming wounds ourself, without believing that we are saviors, without capitulating to the lover’s siren song, the one that says, Please fix me. You’re the only one who can.

Never trust that song. It is a lie. It is the song of a wounded animal, the song of a wounded child who only wants someone to pick them up and love them well and treat them like a beloved thing in the eyes of the sun. It is a powerful thing to have someone turn the sun’s eyes on you, to have someone tell you that you are the only and one best thing that can save them — you are the only one who understands — you are the only one who can kiss it and make it better. But you are not their parent. I was not his mother. My job was never to be his mother. My job was never to contort myself so that someone else be more comfortable in the world. And still I put that task on my shoulders because I wanted to be a good femme.

I tried to reach for comfort inside the context of his disassembly: he could have have put the pillows and a blanket on the floor and said to me, If you want to be a good ally to me, you’ll sleep there. I would have. I wanted him to know that I was a safe space, that I got it. I knew that he had suffered, and I could make it better. Wasn’t that what I’d learned from Stone Butch Blues? A femme’s job is to stand by her man, hold all the secrets, and suffer in silence.

So, when the old rage and resentments flare, I rant a little, and then I check in with myself: What’d I need to learn from this relationship?

How to hold my own boundaries as sacrosanct. How to listen to the no that rises up in me like wildfire. How to trust that every other person has their own higher power, their own resources and capacity to take care of themselves, to trust that I was not put on the earth to make sure that any other adult is reparented well or gendered appropriately.

The thing I want to talk about is wounded butches and rescuer femmes. I kneel down into the bed of my psyche, push in tender fingers and pull at that woven bed of matted, invasive root structures: I do not exist to ensure that anyone else’s life is worth living. I cannot not be the mother you did not have. You could not be the father I did not have. I am not your perfect femme, the one who turns herself out to make sure the world sees you as you wish to be seen. Of course, he would say he did not ask for this — and he didn’t. I asked it of myself. This is the mire I get stuck within. My job was to fold myself in such a way that he could rise up and over. Do you see? Let me be the visible dizzy girl when we are out in the world together, so that the world will see you as that girl’s man. The world is looking for that girl to have a man. Never mind that I didn’t want a hero. Never mind that I didn’t want a man. I wanted a lover and compatriot. I wanted a friend and companion. And oh, I wanted to be the best ally. I wanted to be the hero. Yes, of course. A big sister who has failed her little sister wants to hero something successfully, and I tried to hero my ex-wife (when I wasn’t asking that she hero me), and then I tried to be the best hero femme for your tender angry scared wounded butch.

Where is the conversation about how we hold each other up and also demand that each of us gets the support we need outside the relationship? That’s not the question I want to ask. Where was the femme community telling me I didn’t have to be the good femme, I didn’t have to be the Leslie Feinberg tragic heroine suffering in silence at the kitchen table with a tumbler of whisky while my lover recuperated in the other room after yet another tortured encounter with the heterosexist, transphobic, racist, classist outside world?

If you are a femme asking these questions yourself, I want to tell you that you don’t have to be that silent sufferer. You don’t have to be the carrier of all the secrets. You are more than just the body that displays someone else’s masculinity and manhood. You are more than the quiet and slight that someone else can be big and loud in opposition to. You are more than her femme or his femme or their femme: You are more than a possessive or a thing possessed. You are more than your guilt or shame or sorrow. You cannot fix someone else’s woundings by making yourself small. You cannot fix someone else’s woundings at all. You can only carry yourself with your own fierce grace. You can only follow the tender violet callings of your own broken open heart. Yes, if you are a lover of butches, you will watch them get hurt in the world — but it is not their right to demand that you make everything better (even if they are not aware that they are making that demand). Your love will not change the world. Your love will not change them. Only they can change themselves. Listen to them tell you they will change — once. After that, pay attention to what they do, rather than what they say. Find femme support and listen to the innerest voice of your heart and your gut. Your instincts don’t lie to you, even when you don’t want to hear what they have to say. It took that relationship to teach me that I could trust my instincts. I wish I could have learned that lesson differently, and yet I am grateful that I learned it as soon as I did.

Our lives are forever greater than that

above all
I’ve cosmically transmuted the atmospheric bone
the dementia enveloped by protest
by turquoise weight
& somnific solar inclusion
singing by eclipse torrent
by waves of flame erupting from mirrors & dreams of post-
extinction
- from “Song in Barbarous Fumarole of the Japanese Crested Ibis,” by Will Alexander

Then, there! We watched the thin edge disappear—
The obvious stole over us like awe,
That it was our own silhouette we saw,
Slow perhaps to us moon-gazing here
(Reaching for each other’s fingertips)
But sweeping like a wing across that stark
Alien surface at the speed of dark.
- from “Sublunary,” by A. E. Stallings

Last night my sweetheart woke up just long enough to see the earth’s shadow slip up onto the surface of the moon and take a bite, but we missed most of the libran lunar eclipse. This morning I sit in front of the low illumination of the computer screen, listening to the candleflame flickering in its glass containment, and imagine what magic was cast over our sleeping bodies when the whole of the earth passed between moon and sun. What new songs did the garden plants learn to sing from that shining halo of refracted light? What leftover glow will catch itself onto my fingers when I reach for those new leaves today?

Yesterday afternoon I weeded the garden just a little, and watered the new plants. I watched the honeybees in the orange tree, watched the black guard bee protect the blossoms — what an extraordinary task for such a small animal: make sure only the right bees get to this pollen. He flies around and around the tree, buzzing close to anyone who approaches, human or dog. He does not sit down for a coffee break. He does not rest. Later in the afternoon, on the phone with my sister — in which I live in the future and can look at a box in my hand and see both her and her new son in their home far away — a stellar’s jay drops into the middle raised bed; he perches on the wooden edging and pulls something up in his beak, shaking it hard. This is just where I’ve planted my little lettuces, and so I holler at him to leave the lettuce alone. He ignores me, because I am all the way up on the deck, and do not speak his language. He keeps shaking the thing in his beak a bit, then gets what he wanted, and flies over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. I suddenly picture him shaking a snail out of its shell, and the jay becomes my ally with his sharp raspy cry and his too-big feet. I want him to come back and get all the snails out of the garden, away from my lettuces. We will work together – me and the jay and the guardian bee and the eclipsed moon and the early morning songbirds.

I wonder how to make it clear that this writing is about survival, how this writing connects to the larger work of this blog: then I wonder if that’s necessary. This morning there is a new and quiet longing that’s lodged itself in my body, behind breastbone and breath. Its voice sounds like something more than the daily work of just making it, of pulling the ends together, of barely yanking the shamed body up into a sitting position before the night falls and we are left to do it all over again tomorrow. The voice of this new longing is for a place that is substantial and rooted, is for growth that doesn’t struggle to rise out of the desecrated ground of trauma. The point is that life is continuous and regenerative. The point is that bodies can recover. The point is that nothing is the same after we are harmed to the point of breaking open, but also that we can still open the blinds to look at the wonder of the simple movement of the sky’s body, that we can be more than the aftermath of one man’s madness. Our lives are forever greater than that.