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beginning to write back into the fragments I’ve become

Sticker on a post in Omaha, Nebraska, that reads "Stop living like it's the end of the world"I need help with long term hope
I need help with the dawn
of war and achieving
my new year’s resolutions

(from “The Help I Need Is Not Available Here” by Alli Warren)

Do you ever feel like you can never do enough, write enough, organize enough, say enough, be enough? The help I need is not available in the idea of “enough,” but I keep on searching there. I wrote for an hour this morning, trying to find my way back into this blog, trying to find my way into the ideas that are pinballing around inside my body, trying to push out, trying to ring all the right bells and push past the paddles of worry and panic and loss and hopelessness. This is what this morning’s writing looked like:

This is the morning writing and I will just say it. I read the books about women falling apart, looking to community to hold them up — but these are books about women with a community to hold them up, women who had the capacity to allow community in in the first place. Where’s the book about the woman who was traumatized in such a way that she can’t let most people get actually close to her so has no one to stop by and see when she is curled up on the rug for hours, trying to remember why it matters that she get up? We do this slow work together of writing and kindness and generosity, and all around us, people are beating each other into the ground, then standing up, brushing off (those who can) and walking back out onto the playing field. What would our professional sports teams look like if all those who had been given tacit permission to beat and batter those in their personal lives had to suffer professional consequences for their actions? What would our offices and governments look like, for that matter?

We as a society have followed the bifurcated logic of the abuser for centuries — what someone does at home is nobody’s business, and has no impact on their professional work, or the work they do out in the community. I trained myself to believe this logic, eventually too afraid to call the police about my stepfather, for so many reasons, but also somehow certain that he was probably doing good work with his psychotherapy clients, and so I shouldn’t RUIN THINGS FOR THEM BY TURNING HIM INTO THE AUTHORITIES FOR CHILD ABUSE. Yikes. What is this twisted logic? Alice Walker says, “Deliver me from writers who say the way they live doesn’t matter. I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?”

If football players are sanctioned for their violence towards partners and children, why not also politicians, businessmen, therapists, college students? Usually it’s only the partner, the abused person, who has to suffer professional consequences of abuse, in the form of harassment and stalking and/or lost job time, lost wages, and poor performance brought on by depression, hyper-vigilance, terror. I had something I wanted to say about this. The words fill me up but this month I have been doing everything else but writing. I have been in my own history, with family now, watching our old patterns play out on the skin of this new life. I turn on the tv only to be assaulted with videos of assaults — I managed to avoid seeing the ray rice video, replayed endlessly not simply to indict him but don’t you think also to indict and shame her? Still, last night I was treated to an extended and replayed video of a brawl at a 49ers football game, people punching each other in the stands, leaving the stairs they were battling on covered in blood. This isn’t a movie or a video game, it’s a real fight  that somebody took the time to stand back and video and then share with the media. I turn off the tv. I turn off social media so as to avoid seeing videos of men punching girlfriends in elevators, to avoid the endless victim-blaming conversations about what is the matter with these women that they stay with these guys?, to avoid images of a young boy’s scarred-up backside, to avoid seeing and hearing things I can’t unsee or unhear.

I turn off NPR, now, because of their insistence on playing recordings of people being assaulted, raped, and murdered. NPR, for goodness’ sake. It’s like someone in their newsroom decided they weren’t getting enough of that market share that longs to be confronted with the sounds of actual visceral terror, and so they ought to try and be more like Fox News in this way, and push these auditory images on us without warning.

So things are going quiet again. We can choose what gets in to us. We can choose what we take in. we can choose how to participate in this cultural conditioning around violence and vitriol. We can step back. Suddenly my world is getting a lot quieter. I simply am too full to take in more. I am full of the sounds of trauma’s aftermath — my own and hundreds of others’ aftermaths, too. I am full of the  stories and memories. I am full of loss and sorrow. I am full of broken branches and cicadas. I am full of belts pulled from belt loops, rage scraped across children’s ears, the long volatile scar of childhood being yanked out of the throat via notebook and pen. I am full already.

And now suddenly our culture wants to say they hold men accountable for their violence toward women, partners, children. If only that were true. I suppose I should be grateful for these small steps. They say we’re supposed to be grateful. I will believe that we actually care about the impact of partner violence when businesspeople are sanctioned after assaulting their girlfriends in elevators. And, of course, we don’t just need professional consequences for bad personal behavior, we need a whole and complete cultural renewal: just firing people who abuse isn’t going to solve the problem (but, gosh, it would be satisfying to look at football teams and boardrooms half-empty because the rapists and child violators and wife beaters have been removed) — still, then what? Don’t you think it’s possible that the woman Ray Rice (and I am so irritated that I even have to know this guy’s name and am repeating it here) assaulted is now suffering further consequences at home because he’s being held accountable for his actions out in the world? The conversation has to be bigger than this.

I want to cheer about how fantastic it is that maybe now child molesters might not get promoted (to, say, board chair, or company vice president, or bishop), but I think we’re a long way off from that. It’s easy to take action on a crime when there’s a video that’s released to the world — though, as we all know by now, even having video evidence doesn’t even assure justice; the NFL didn’t take any action against Rice until the video was released to the public. Public outcry matters — and even then, just as at Penn State after Sandusky and Paterno were removed (and still today!), we saw fans coming out in support of the batterer.

And what do I want to say about this anyway? That I feel sad and scared and defeated. That it seems the violence is escalating all around us. That I want to believe that there is positive change, but am flattened by the news, the commentaries, the violence, the reminders that 70% of Americans still believe corporal punishment of children is ok, that if we were beaten or switched or whooped as children that we ought to be able to do the same to our own kids, that the USA is only one of three nations (the others are Somalia and South Sudan) that hasn’t ratified the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child

After an hour, I stopped writing, and turned to the morning tasks. I fed the dog, helped get a boy’s lunch together, helped prep a boy’s breakfast — then, when that boy and his mama were off to school, the pup and I got in the car and drove to buy the flour I’d need to spend the day baking bread — tomorrow is the official book launch for Sex Still Spoken Here, and so I am preparing to deliver the homemade bread (and custom writing prompts!) that some of our Indiegogo donors requested. So far, the first loaves are readying to go into the oven, and the second batch has just started its first rise.

I consider it an especially good day when I’ve had time to bake one loaf of bread from scratch — so what a gift it’s going to be, to have had space to bake eight.

Today I need help with long term hope. Today I want to stop living like it’s the end of the world. This weekend, at the self care workshop I facilitated at the Power of Words conference, one of the participants suggested that we go around the circle of twenty or so attendees and just say one thing we do to take care of ourselves. Today I am taking all of those good ideas into my heart, as I work to replenish a well that has gone altogether too dry. I turn to baking and therapy and writing practice. I turn to green tea and playing catch with the pup. I turn to the hummingbirds in the passionflower and monarchs just beginning to arrive here from the midwest.

I don’t have to earn this life

Good morning, good morning, writers. Have you already pushed into your words this morning? Did you make some time in these precious wee hours for the voice of weirdness and magic to find its way to you?

I’m sorry to have been absent from this space for so long — the last weeks have been overly filled with work that leaves me without time for any morning writing that’s not dashed off in the notebook. There’s been this beautiful book we are getting ready to send off to the printers and all of the necessary, last-minute edits of stories, formatting and reformatting, and gathering the various bits and pieces together that make a collection like this one come together — the other day I worked through the night on “final” copyedits (though it seems like copyediting is never actually finished), awake until 4am, which is when I usually would prefer to rise! There’ve been many writing groups, including two at Pacific School of Religion engaging the idea of writing as a spiritual practice for the new (and returning) seminarians there. Our online Write Whole writing group is coming to a close, and I’ve been writing up responses to last-minute writes and chatting with participants one-on-one. I worked on a book review, began working on a new editing project, and I even (gasp!) spent some time with friends and family (though that’s really more of a testament to my sweetheart’s scheduling abilities; left to my own devices, this is a time when I’d put my head down and see almost no one — thank goodness she helps keep me sane.)

All this means I’m spending very little time online. When I have a little downtime, I spend it outside in the garden, or playing with the pup, or reading a book in a quiet corner. I’m doing some writing, sure, in workshops and in the notebook

Life has been fully outside my ideal routine during this time: little downtime, little reflective space, and even less time alone to replenish the creative well. I keep plugging forward because I know the crunch is finite — it feels rather like finals back at school: you do what you have to do, you work hard, you have minor or major meltdowns and then you get back to work, you push through it and then when it’s all done you go home for the break and succumb to some small virus and sleep for three days and nourish yourself with ramen noodles and daytime talk shows.

Right now, I can’t do the usual work required of a small businessperson/solopreneur — I can’t do a lot of promo for the upcoming fall workshops, and am not able to return calls or connect with folks about possible new business. I get frustrated and overwhelmed and then I remember that it is what it is: this one body has a finite amount of resources and energy, and right now we’re expending all of them just moving through the projects already on our plate. This is hard remembering for me to do: it takes practice. I am forever more easily able to listen to the voice in my head that tells me I am not doing enough, I am lazy and a slacker, I will never amount to anything worthwhile. Perhaps you have some similar sort of voice in your head, too. I’m sorry, if that’s the case. This is an ongoing struggle for most people, and maybe a bit moreso for those of us who are survivors of family violence, who heard early and often how selfish and hateful we were for wanting agency and bodily integrity and to be the determiners of our own futures (not to mention love and security and safety — my goodness).

Change is in the works: I am beginning to see the glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel. I take breaks and turn off the news. This morning I rose early so that I could make maple-bacon scones for a certain new 6th grader, and will head to the dog park with the pup after I drop that same particular someone off at school for the day. Then I’ll head down south to visit with another small boy (this one just about to hit his six month mark!) and a sister and a mother, and we will spend the day doing no “work” but the practice of real love and being, which I have to keep reminding myself is a worthwhile way to “spend” my time. I don’t have to work all the time in order to deserve the air I breathe. I don’t have to earn this life. I can be in it, too.

Big love and gratitude today, for you and your words and all the ways of your being-ness.

unplug

The media are not done using Robin Williams’ death to flesh out the little segments of so-called information that they like to provide between commercials, but his name is mostly out of the headlines, out of the 24-hour news cycle, and has moved into the next circle of news, the more in-depth and thinky pieces, the long opinion pieces, the actual tributes. But do we have time for these? There’s so much information to get to — our social media feeds, the top-of-the-hour bad news headlines on our at-work radio stations, tv blaring at us at our coffee shops, at the gas station, to say nothing of the tv for awhile after work (thinking it will “help us relax”) — how do we have any kind of intentions at all about what we’re taking in? How do we integrate the information shoved at us?

We can’t, of course, while we’re standing in the flood trying to keep our heads above water. The information simply comes at us too quickly, intended to keep us in a state of overload, making us easier to control through our undirected rage, depression, or apathy. We have to choose to step out of the information pipeline and unplug.

After spending a couple of days talking about Robin Williams (an enormous amount of time, given how much ongoing attention most news stories get — including Obama’s recent decision to send drones into another country to drop bombs on the people, fingers crossed that we will get the people we’re targeting with no “collateral damage”), we moved quickly on to the next celebrity death, spent a few minutes thinking about the horror of racist-policing practices in Missouri, and then switched to sports. This is what a strict, regimented news cycle will do to you. I often wonder about the well-being of newscasters. What is it like for them to allow these words, these stories, to be carried through their bodies and into the world, over and over, every day, for years? To have to articulate a gristly murder or the horror of genocide, then, read an upbeat, human-interest, or sports-related story, as though these two things made sense being in such close proximity to one another?

In the day after Robin Williams died, I was listening to late-evening BBC radio after a writing group. When I tuned in, the announcers were describing what was known about the entertainer’s death. I was thinking about how concerned the announcers sounded, how involved in the story. And then, without missing a beat, one of them said, with a gleeful tone, “And now it’s time for Sport!” turning the mic over to whoever it was, and the sportscaster had to come in with his headlines about what was going on in the world of football, as if this were a natural transition. It’s not at all unusual to hear these kinds of juxtapositions, and I wonder how newscasters train for the emotional work that is required of them: convey sadness here, transition rapidly during this two second breath, then convey excitement and jocularity as you say this part. How do they hold the stories in their bodies? How do they hold the apparent lack of empathy?

How do we? We’re the ones listen to news presented this way, and this is how we learn to take in information: the terrible and the banal, all at once, given the same weight and measure (not to mention, of course, the stories we know about that never get reported on the news at all). If we watch broadcast television or commercial video streams, we are likely to see images of violence abutted up against images of people behaving ridiculously– say, a commercial featuring a man wearing a clown head right after  a commercial showing us strewn bodies or a gun battle or a seduction scene. Now we get to have the same sort of cognitive-dissonance-inducing information collocation in our social media streams. Americans learn to weigh all of this information the same. I am not telling you anything new. I’ve just been noticing it, feeling the madness an information-acquisition practice that we have to learn to take care of ourselves around.

In the face of rapid-fire images and stories entering our consciousness every second, how do we tune in to our empathy, our capacity for vulnerability and connection, while also not feeling wholly drained and depleted?

Last weekend I had the very good fortune to be in Southern California for a couple of days with my sweetheart. I spent an awful lot of time in the sun (all sunscreened-up, don’t worry), in the pool, or in the ocean. I read novels. I read a magazine that focused on the various cuisines of the Indian subcontinent. I avoided my technological devices. During breaks like this, as on most weekends, I tend to stay away from email and other social media. I listen to the radio much less often. I breathe more deeply, and notice how my sense of the psychic space around me expands. My attention span lengthens. I’m able to engage a thought for longer than a few seconds. Not only is this what my body needs, what my soul needs, it’s also what my writing needs.

Of course, there were newspapers on Saturday or Sunday morning, yes, that we could read or not. It was there, in a newspaper headline, that I learned that our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president had again decided to allow bombs to be dropped, using unmanned drones, on the people of a foreign country. I did not read the news story accompanying this headline, only felt the heartbreak and a deep sense of — not inertia but what? Futility. What difference could it even make to get angry? The anger doesn’t make any difference. Conservative or ostensibly-liberal president, same outcomes: endless war (thank you, President Bush). And yet our congress intends to sue not the man/administration who got us into an undeclared war on the rest of the world, but Obama, for overreaching his powers. It should be astonishing, but instead the news washes over me, leaving me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and a deep sense of my utter powerlessness to do anything to change anything about how our country runs and runs over so many, here and abroad. That sweet sense of expansiveness contracts again, consuming me in a self-protective shell.

Immediately I am enraged. Why is our country like this? I want to be hopeful that our politics, our foreign policies, our American engagement with the rest of the world could change from one of dominance and power-over to one of collaboration and cooperation. But it seems not just hopeless but ridiculous to want this — I feel like a stupid hippie, and notice how deeply I’ve internalized that mainstream American judgement of anyone who wants to stop the bombs. I thought about that bumper sticker, the one that reads, “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” What if that were the country we live in? But we don’t. We live in a country that cares more about property and prowess than people. Our politicians say that they are working for the people, trying to make a better world for the children of this country, but we know better. They might want things to be better for their children, but that’s not even remotely the same thing as doing the work to make the country more hospitable for all children.

My breath begins to come more shallowly and I feel the warm and inviting waters of ennui rise up around me. How can anything anyone does make any difference? After many years involved in social change work, I come up into this question often. Nothing any one of us does will be enough to change everything. Why keep breaking ourselves open, walking with nothing but our own and other people’s pain, when those in power have it all?

This apathy is easy to get lost in, and I remember that, just for this weekend, I’m turning away from the newspapers. My sweetheart and I took long walks on the beach. At sunset one night, we stood on a cliff and watched a pod of dolphins breach and leap. I spent hours floating in the beach-side waves, looking down at small pods of fish beneath me, or gazing at the sea lion sunning herself on a rock nearby. Little by little, the tension in my shoulders relaxed again. I took deep breaths and let the sea carry me — so generous, this willingness to hold our human bodies, when humans have done so much damage to her.

On our last morning, we headed to the beach for our long morning walk and were met by a man wearing a khaki green outfit who asked if we were there for the release. Yes, absolutely, I thought, and then realized he maybe meant something besides simply release in general, and asked what he meant. “The sea lions’ release.” Then he looked at us quizzically. Didn’t we know? Two sea lions had been brought in to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, badly underweight and in need of care. The volunteers at the center had worked to rehabilitate the young animals, and they were now ready to go back home.

We took our walk (stopping to admire the crashing waves, two more breaching dolphins, and some young artist’s line drawing in the sand of an ejaculating penis) and returned to the release site just in time to gather up with the observers (including members of a girl scout troop who had sponsored one of the sea lions’ treatment and rehab— thank you!). A couple of golf carts brought down big dog crates, each one with a young sea lion inside. The crates were removed from the carts and set up on the beach so that they opened down toward the water. A volunteer asked us to stay quiet until the animals reached the sea, so that they would not be more scared or confused. And then another volunteer opened the crate gates, and we waited. The sea lions poked their noses out, testing: do we really get to come out now? They took their time, inching forward, until they were sure that no one was going to stop them — and then they raced down the beach to the water, seemingly so joyful when they hit their home and began to cascade up and down, riding the same waves that had cradled our own bodies. They pushed through the water, and we the gathered humans cheered, watching them as long as we could, until their forms disappeared into the grey.

I wept as I watched them go (and again when I watched the video this morning), so grateful they were home, and so grateful for the volunteers’ hard work and emotional labor. What a thing, to work so hard with an animal and then watch it disappear.

What a thing, to be reminded that we humans do have the capacity to care so deeply for one another and for other beings, if only we can allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to show it. To have the seduction of apathy and ennui and easy sarcasm and irony challenged in this way. Real change happens when we are real with ourselves and each other, when we risk unplugging ourselves from the information onslaught long enough to remember what authentic human embodiment and connection feels like.

This is what I have today. Keep writing, and talk to the animals, too, whenever you can. I think they help us learn better how to be human.

having it all doesn’t fix the sadness

Good morning, good morning — I’m sitting in the dark workshop circle, listening to the train hollering its way through Jack London Square. Something about the train whistle feels like home.

I feel quiet, almost peaceful, which is so odd I can’t quite get a handle on it yet. I have the green-peppermint tea and a stiff and creaky body holding up this rocking chair. The birds are quiet still. No owls, no seagulls even.

I’m in this space that I have crafted just for my creative self: workshop room, writing room, dreaming room. What a profound privilege to be able to say this. When I was living outside of Portland, ME, in the log-sided cabin that my ex and I found way out in the middle of nowhere, I used to dream of having a studio in the city, a place where I could listen to the people, watch the night come and the morning rise, where I could put on the local jazz station and sit down at the kitchen table, opening a notebook (did I even sometimes imagine a typewriter?) and pouring out all of my words. Sometimes it’s hard for me to comprehend that this is now my reality. There are visionings that do come true.

I used to envision this place with despair — or maybe out of despair — feeling locked into a country place that I had asked for and that ended up not being at all right for me. I imagined a tiny studio, something you’d find in a walk-up in New York’s lower east side, with white painted walls and a linoleum floor and a single window in the kitchen that looked out over the lights and buildings of the city. There’d be a bare bulb in the small kitchen, and the table there would constitute my office. I would have a little black radio set up on top of the fridge, manually tuned to the jazz station, and to the sounds of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis (even so he was a woman beater) and the great John Coltrane — as well as to the howls and moans of people living real lives all around me — I would find the words for my stories. I would pound out my writing late into the night.

It was a selfish dream at the time, and one that wouldn’t go away. It seemed hopeless. How would I get from an ostensibly settled and quiet home out in the middle of the country to that live wire hotbed of art and generative energy? It seemed impossible, especially given how depressed I was most of the time. I thought, if only I could have that, then everything would be better.

Teddy Roosevelt is said to have said that comparison is the thief of joy. I’ve got that quote now in the rotation of images that will show up as the backdrop ton my laptop, just as a reminder. I am forever comparing myself to others and coming up lacking. I compare my little business with others’ achievements and am reminded of all the ways I have failed. I compare my small and brightly-painted apartment to a friend’s even real house, complete with all the trappings of material success, and my little space comes up short. Nothing here looks like success: no big screen tv, no fancy furniture, no location up in the hills or a prestigious san francisco zip code. Outside I hear the woman picking through the cans in the recycling bin. I think, comparing myself to these others in my life, I should have more. If I had what they had, I’d be all right. Wouldn’t I?

Coming out from under my stepfather’s control at age 21, all I knew how to do was compare myself to others every minute — am I acting right? Do I look normal? Do you think people believe that I’m a regular person? I looked to the people around me – my girlfriend, my friends, the other (mostly richer) students at my little ivy league school — how do they talk to each other? How do regular people talk to each other? I didn’t know how to be human. I only knew how to be his marionette, and so I felt myself suddenly confronted with a sharp learning curve. I had freed myself from his strings, and fell immediately into a pile in the middle of my living room floor. What do I do now?

While I was comparing, I made assumptions. I assumed that all those normal kids, the ones who got to pick their own boyfriends and who broke up when they wanted to, not when their dad told them to, who went to parties and saw friends outside of school — I assumed those normal kids were happy. I compared myself to them and usually came up lacking. If only I could be more like them, maybe I would be more safe. Maybe I would be ok. I figured their lives were perfect.

Of course I was wrong. A lot of those kids, the ones I looked to for guidance on how to be normal, were battling their own struggled and demons. Plenty of those kids had awfulness at home — some that looked like mine , and some that didn’t. It is so easy to believe, caught behind the lens of my own pain, that everyone else has it better.

When I’m depressed, I compare myself to others even more religiously. I look around me and only see people who are well-adjusted, real adults, people who know how to handle perfectly well the pressures of living in this world as a functioning human. They don’t expect a ticker tape parade just because they paid their car bill or insurance premium before it’s so late it’s about to go into collections, or just because they went shopping before the fridge was entirely bare, or because they did laundry and now no longer have to wear bathing suits as underwear. They take care of business, make time for friends, have good relationships with their families, take their pets to the vet before the vet has to send out an endless number of silly reminder cards with pictures of frogs hanging off a tree and sayings like Hang In there or Time flies when you’re having fun!  They go to their already scheduled dentist appointments every six months on the dot or they manage to buy new clothes before their last pair of jeans tears at the thighs or — all of these other people around me area healthy and together and functional and fine. They do not step into their apartments and begin weeping. They do not spend 7 hours a day watch streaming bad television on netflix. They do not wait until the last minute to do all of their job tasks. They know how to budget, they complete their taxes early, they return phone calls before such an embarrassingly long time has passed that they have to begin thinking up lies about where they’ve been or what they’ve been doing — oh, I was watching my friend’s llama for awhile out in Calistoga and they didn’t have an internet connection! — until they remember that lying like that is only the first step back fully into their sickness and so they come clean or else just don’t call at all and risk estranging one more friend…

In other words, of course, everyone else is fine. I’m the only one with problems. It’s bullshit, and it’s what depression tells me. And because, when I’m depressed, I isolate, I get no real input to contract depression’s whisper in my ear that I am the only one struggling. I check facebook, read through my newsfeed, and find that everyone else is doing marvelously — here’s a new book contract, here’s a new house, here’s a new marriage, here’s this joy, that joy, this celebration, that achievement — I manage to skip or ignore the posts from friends who are also struggling, though, more often than not, those folks are like me, not posting about their real lives, lest anyone find out how pathetic we are (again, the voice of depression talking).

When I spend real time with others, though, I begin to hear a different message from what depression has told me — at 12-step meetings or writing groups or even a miraculous coffee date with a friend, I hear that people I assume have it all together are struggling with issues that sound an awful lot like mine. Oh. We’re all of us muddling through here. The self-help and personal coaching industries wouldn’t be raking in millions of dollars if everyone but me had it together, I guess.

Just like so many other people, I can’t stop listening to news about Robin Williams. I find myself wanting to know what he was struggling with at the end, which, of course, is entirely none of my business. I make some assumptions about what depression was saying to him. Certainly , in my own experience, depression’s voice gets louder when its fueled by alcohol. I hear folks saying things like “what hope do I have if someone like him who had it all can’t even get through?” We have this idea that “having it all” makes everything better. But of course he didn’t have it all: depression reminds-you that you don’t have anything.

Depression doesn’t care about your previous achievements or your positive steps forward or the people around you who love you. Depression filters out joy or any sense of possibility of joy in the future. Depression only wants to remind you of your failures, and saps your energy so that it feels impossible to even move, to say nothing of hauling yourself up by your goddamn bootstraps, which is what we’re told we’re supposed to do.

I am thinking as well about a beloved young man who was my nephew once. I wonder what the voice of depression was saying to him before he took his own life, what comparisons he was making between his life and the lives of those around him, what equations he was figuring that left himself on the lesser end. This was a child of means, from a family with access to resources, and still —

I’m thinking about all the people who kill themselves who don’t get international news coverage, whose lives were just as brilliant and generous as Williams’ — the people who see no way out of the tunnel that depression shoves you into.

Money and privilege can do a lot when you’re living under american capitalism, but they don’t undo depression. In my experience, depression is one of the great levelers, clearing everything else out of the way and leaving everyone who suffers with it in a similar place: you are less than everyone else.

Today, it’s part of my self-care practice to check the comparisons I’m tangling myself up into. Practice doesn’t mean I get to any place of perfection around this issue — it means I learn to catch myself before I slide all the way deep into  the sort of shame spiral that would have once tucked me back into depression’s familiar arms, gently reminding myself that even though I don’t have everything this person or that person has, I’m still doing ok, and they are probably not perfect (thank goodness for them) in spite of appearing to have more than I do. Walking with depression takes a lot of tools. The more I connect in a real way with others (rather than just compare myself to them and try to make my facade look like theirs), the more tools we can share with each other.

I’m sending big gratitude your way today, and also a ticker tape parade for that one big achievement (you got to the bank! you went for a walk! you wrote! you fed yourself kindly and well!) I’m not kidding — we deserve big celebration when we take these good steps. Thanks for your words today.

how we help each other stay

In my dream, my young trans friends were committing suicide. We heard about it on the radio, on the news, through the grapevine, and everything was tears and loss. In the dream, people were giving up. Why stay when it’s always this hard? Why keep on fighting? Why put up with the shame and hostility? Why continue to walk into this wall of depression? In the dream, I didn’t know why they’d done it — only that now they were gone. I woke up sure that the dreams were real, a sinking feeling in my chest, and for a long time I continued mourning, sure that when I logged in to social medial this morning, I would see a long stream of remembrances and sorrow for these beloveds.

It is nobody’s business to tell anyone not to kill themselves, I know. Sometimes it is the only right way. In my experience, though, it feels like the only right way a lot more often than it actually is.

What do I want from this writing this morning? I want to gather up some hope. I want to acknowledge the tremendous power of depression and turn it another way rather than at and into our own throats. I want real help for those who are suffering. I want a culture that can offer more than social media posts and secret-style “just ask the universe for what you want and you’ll get it!” messaging in response to anyone who has lost the ability to find the point in all of their pain.

And, too, I guess what I really want is to say that I see you. I see you who are hurting. I see you who are isolating in your safest inside place. I see you who are 100% certain that you are alone. I see you who have done nothing but cry all weekend. I see you who can’t get out from under the covers. I see you who looks so functional on the outside but is all fragments and torn shame inside. I see the smiles you are giving others so that they don’t worry about you. I see the way you are so practiced at being fine.

(I’m not saying this to call you out or expose you, to leave you feeling like all your good and self-protective work is a sham. When I say I see you, I mean that I get it. You have a witness if you want one. You don’t have to be alone in there if you don’t want to be.)

I believe that you don’t believe that anyone can see you. And I believe that you are ashamed to think that someone might. And I believe it if you say it doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t have mattered much for me, either, when I was tied up in the knots of depression. You see everyone around you looking like they’re fine and you wonder what’s wrong with you. Why can’t you be normal? I asked myself, deep in the tears, why can’t I be normal?

(Let’s say 1 in 10 Americans report dealing with depression, which is what the cdc reported in 2011 —  remembering that depression is surely underreported, as are most things that we are embarrassed or ashamed about — we can still hold the possibility that, in fact, depression is a common experience. We aren’t abnormal after all. But that doesn’t help. Knowing this doesn’t actually help.)

When I have been depressed, I have been certain that no one would care about how bad I felt. I was embarrassed and ashamed. My worst depressions in recent years have been hormonal, and even knowing that — knowing from experience that as soon as I bled, I would feel better — did not alleviate the weight of the lead blanket that depression had flung over my shoulders. I was 100% certain I was alone, that no one could (or would want to) understand what I was feeling, that I was weak and pathetic and just needed to get my shit together.

I see how you protect yourself. Of course you protect yourself. I see the hurt under the armor. I can’t do more than see it, but I see it, and I can sit here with you while you walk through your own fire.

That’s all we can really do for each other. There’s not much we can do to fix someone else’s loss or sorrow or pain; we can’t make it not exist. We can’t undo what’s been done to them. We, as single individuals, will not transform our culture into one that cares more about human lives than power and prowess and might. But we can walk underneath all the advertisements and we can turn off social media and we can dodge the self-righteous positive thinking take-responsibility-for-your-own-story coaches and we can sit down with those we love when they are hurting and just be with that pain. And sometimes it won’t be enough. But we can show up for each other in this human way in spite of that possibility.

This is extraordinarily tender work, especially when what we know works best is to isolate, to keep our most vulnerable selves protected even from the people who love us most. Especially when we are sure that when our friends, our lovers, our families, our communities find out that we are not the uniformly strong-and-capable selves we pretend to be, they will leave us in disgust. Maybe you have even been left in this way; I am sorry those people were not strong enough to sit with their own vulnerability in order to help to cradle you.

I don’t want you to go. I want you to share what’s inside you, the bleak and the tarry and the terrified and the isolated. I want you to tangle your fingers into those of someone who loves you and let them hold you even when you are sure that you don’t deserve to be loved. I want you to hear that your life matters — not just because of what you will or won’t do, not just because of the genius you carry that only you carry — but because of exactly your precise youness.

In my hardest depressions, I would tell myself, maybe tomorrow will be different. Not necessarily better (I wasn’t in a place to even consider better at those times), but at least different. And that was enough to stay.

This post won’t change anything. It won’t make the depression better. It is to say that I have been there — give my history, I can bet that I will be there again — and though I don’t know what you’re feeling, I know how painful my own depressions have been. I am sorry that you are aching, and I am sorry if you don’t see a way out right now. In my experience, these feelings do shift, open, ease. I don’t want you to hurt yourself. You are not alone. Please let the tears out, let the words out, write and scream and sob and sleep, do what you need to do to keep yourself here.

Your life matters to me and to others. I am so grateful that you exist.

 

“render, render”

Good morning good morning. It’s grey here today, the clouds soaking across the hills, coating everything in an impenetrable foggy frost that I am deeply grateful for. How has the day begun for you? Where is your sun just now?

Sophie has gone after a squirrel this morning, who is now stuck up on top of the neighbor’s garage and is letting forth a stream of chitters that I can only assume is squirrel for lots and lots of expletives. Sophie stands guard, ball in her mouth (thus rendering her fully incapable of catching anything else between her teeth, but the squirrel doesn’t know that) — she and the squirrel have this sort of antagonistic relationship when he gets close to where she can catch him, but I’ve seen her watching him in the garden for long stretches, those times he risks coming down from the walnut tree to grab one of the fallen green walnuts or takes to examining the garden to see if there’s anything there he might like, and Sophie will stand up at the top of the garden, on the patio, watching and watching, still and quiet, not wanting to disturb him, waiting for him to get close? Or maybe she just wants to see what he’ll do? Maybe she wants to be friends?

He’s made it now, from the garage roof, across the top of the backyard fence and back to the trees where he lives — Sophie chases him along the fence, every time he comes down far enough that she’s aware of him, and he chitters his curses the whole time, though now I think maybe it’s more like, go ahead and try it, you land-bound thing! Perhaps something better, more vitriolic.

I’m sitting on the back deck, a good place for quiet when the whole house is up (save for the chasing, barking dog and the teasing, chattering squirrel). The squirrel makes it across our back yard, from tree to tree, and I can’t hear his old-man chattering anymore. Sophie goes to the side fence, next to the other neighbor’s yard, where the squirrel sometimes hides down at ground-level,and she stands up to peek over the fence, using her front paws to grab at the fence and pull herself up and forward to get a better look. The squirrel suddenly appears on the top of the neighbor’s house.

It’s a serious drama here in the backyard this morning.

This morning I woke up thinking about the word render, which means things like: provide or give (as in a service); cause to be; represent or show artistically; melt down (fat); and comes from old French meaning “give back” or “yield.”

This brought to mind a poem that I hand out in the workshops sometimes:

Render, Render
-Thomas Lux

Boil it down: feet, skin, gristle,
bones, vertebrae, heart muscle, boil
it down, skim, and boil
again, dreams, history, add them and boil
again, boil and skim
in closed cauldrons, boil your horse, his hooves,
the runned-over dog you loved, the girl
by the pencil sharpener
who looked at you, looked away,
boil that for hours, render it
down, take more from the top as more settles to the bottom,
the heavier, the denser, throw in ache
and sperm, and a bead
of sweat that slid from your armpit to your waist
as you sat stiff-backed before a test, turn up
the fire, boil and skim, boil
some more, add a fever
and the virus that blinded an eye, now’s the time
to add guilt and fear, throw
logs on the fire, coal, gasoline, throw
two goldfish in the pot (their swim bladders
used for “clearing”), boil and boil, render
it down and distill,
concentrate
that for which there is no
other use at all, boil it down, down,
then stir it with rosewater, that
which is now one dense, fatty, scented red essence
which you smear on your lips
and go forth
to plant as many kisses upon the world
as the world can bear!

I lay in bed long after the alarm went off, hitting snooze, turning back over to cuddle into the blankets, writing this post in my head: render is what we do with the material we live through when we decide to offer it down oto the page. When we write out our joys and struggles, we render the experience from something we lived through, from a vast and uncoordinated series of memories and neuronal interweavings, into story.

Rendering a story takes work. We decide what details to include, what to leave out. We create a structure: a beginning, middle, and end — even when telling just one piece of our day, we tend to create an arc. We build tension, we use sensory detail, we develop characters, we use foreshadowing and backstory — we aren’t intending to do any of this: humans are storytelling creatures. We learn how to do story early, just by listening to the other people around us. We play make believe, we dream, we gossip, we remember aloud to friends, we write poems and fictions and journal entries — we render the constant influx of sensory experience and data down to the stuff of deep human communication: story. And there are so many ways to tell the same experience — every time, the story will be a little different — we’ll remember some detail or forget another, we’ll add a twist, we’ll include something we weren’t ready to say the first time. Every rendering has a different flavor. And why do we do this? To make sense of our lives. To feel witnessed. To be part of the tribe. To set some order to the overwhelm, to have some sense of control over the experience: this is my material, and I’ll do what I want with it, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the life-and-death squirrel-dog drama, the house finches are quietly chewing seeds off of the hawthorn tree, tenaciously avoiding the thorns while they breakfast. I’m noticing my allegiance with them these days — is there really any reason to be running around crazy, barking at everything that feels like a threat? Don’t we have some songs to sing? There’s a juvenile finch in with the adults, just learning to fly, and though she’s joined the grown folks for the meal, she still needs help serving herself, and flaps her wings at one of the adults, chirping, until they feed her. Meanwhile, Sophie stands vigilant, just in case the intruder should return. There have been years I lived the way she is standing right now: muscles tense, every nerve at attention, unable to focus for long on anything but the chance that someone or something might cross the boundary into her space and already ready to fight it off. The thing about Sophie is that she’s able to walk away after a little while. She discharges her tension (shaking her body and stretching long and hard), ridding her muscles of the adrenaline and anxiety — then she moves on to the next thing. It’s usually not so easy for people — we hold tension and hyperalertness in our bodies long, long after the trauma is past.

One of the ways I discharge the old trauma, rendering it into something of use, is through writing. What about you? What happens when you story your knowings, your experiences? What happens when you don’t?

Fierce Hunger at LitCrawl 2014!

Hummingbird graffiti - OaklandSave the date: Writing Ourselves Whole will be at Lit Crawl!

Join us on October 18 for Writing Ourselves Whole’s stop on the infamous LitQuake Lit Crawl for Fierce Hunger!

Fierce Hunger: At the intersection of desire and trauma, longing takes many forms. Join us as Writing Ourselves Whole writers name what survivors are starving for.

Reader Bios:

Eanlai Cronin just completed her first memoir Girl in Irish. She leads writing workshops for those in recovery from chronic illness, PTSD, addiction and small Irish villages!

Manish Vaidya is the Artistic Director of Peacock Rebellion, a crew of queer and trans people of color who make art for social justice.

Renee Garcia is a fat, queer, disabled, femme writer and sex educator living in the Bay Area, and the founder of Write The Fuck Now: writethefucknow.tumblr.com

Blyth Barnow is a writer and community organizer focused on nuanced stories of survival. More of her work can be found at  missfist.blogspot.com

Seeley Quest is a trans performer who has featured around the Bay Area since 2001, as well as in Vancouver, Toronto, and numerous US cities and colleges.  See more of hir work at sinsinvalid.org

Jen Cross is the founder and facilitator of Writing Ourselves Whole, which has offered transformative writing groups to trauma survivors and others since 2003.

Fearless Words: A free writing workshop for women survivors begins October 1

San Francisco Women Against Rape is offering the Fearless Words Creative Writing Workshop for women survivors of rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment and child sexual abuse. Group begins October 1. Eight Wednesdays, 6-8pm at The Women’s Building San Francisco (18th and Valencia). Woman-identified writers of all levels are invited to attend this workshop, created especially for survivors of sexual violence to discover our voices, create political dialogue and develop our craft as writers, while using writing as a medium of healing and transformation. Facilitated by Jen Cross, this group is free, wheelchair accessible, and runs 9 weeks. Call Tabitha at 415/861-2024 for a short intake interview or for more information. Thank you!

I am reminded why we share our stories about sex

Le masculin l’emporte – Mais où ?

Good morning, good morning, good Monday morning to you. How were you kind to yourself this weekend? Where are the words finding their way to you today?

Today we move iinto the second week of our Write Whole online group and the summer session of Write Whole (in person) begins tonight. I spent a good chunk of my weekend reading Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints, which has layers of trauma narrative I hadn’t expected. I’m working on a book about how and why it’s of use to write in community about our experiences of sexual violation, which means revisiting and writing into my own history, herstory, my own story. I am reading and responding to stories posted on the online group forums. I am preparing prompts designed to elicit deeper or more layered or more complicated parts of our stories, the parts we don’t tell very often, the parts that haven’t been so exposed to the light, the parts we tuck underneath the rocks of our armor, protecting them, cradling them, keeping them safe. Those stories are often quite raw and blanched, and when they emerge, the language we use for them is full of energy, vivid and alive.

All this is to say that I am relatively immersed, these days, in trauma story — and by that euphamism, I mean I’m soaking in stories about sexual violence. I think I wrote about this some a few weeks ago, when I eplained why I can’t always read or listen to news stories about sexual violence; I am already full up.

And then I turn around and stand up on a stage and perform a piece about sex.

This weekend I felt especially acutely what’s required for me to pivot this way, to negotiate that transition, from erotic violation to erotic choice and pleasure, to transition from holding stories about sorrow and loss to standing up on a stage, half-naked in extremely tall heels, glitter-coated and exposed. This time around, I performed a persona piece in the voice of a femme dyke who has some… feelings about the anti-femme/anti-feminine constituency in her communities, the communities she inhabits. And it makes sense to me that the pieces I’ve been performing at this event most recently are pretty angry: first of all, this character is pissed-off, providing an outlet for my own anger and disappointment in the world in general and, more specifically, in segments of the butch-femme community that want to play out the same hostile, misogynist dynamics we were all raised with: a male-/masculine-dominant society that undermines and dismisses the power of the feminine. (Not to put too fine a point on it.)

True, it’s fun to stand up and perform a character who will say exactly what she thinks, without nuance or couching, without worrying about her interlocutor’s feelings, without panic that she might injure a tender masculine ego (wait: who’s the weaker sex?), without apology. This character, Althea Xtravaganza, is flavored by me, but she’s not me — she’s had different experience than I’ve had (and gets a whole lot more action in dyke bar bathrooms than I’ve ever seen myself). I suppose there’s another post to be written about the power of writing into a persona or alter ego. My alter ego, Althea, is a high femme who is attracted to butch women and (for some reason!) is frustrated with (and continues to be surprised by) the misogyny she’s expected to swallow from her own queer community. And so she calls that out.

It’s a kind of pleasure to inhabit this character for awhile, after spending a lot of time sitting with the stories I usually do. It’s also exhausting — Althea is armored and fierce in a way I’m not generally, and I always feel some relief when I take off her shoes (literally); I’m grateful I don’t live in her world of cruising and new dates and pickups across the bar and badly behaved beaus and women/transguys/bois who look past her at the dyke bar because she’s too girly for them to believe she actually belongs in their queer space. I am grateful I’m not actually trying to navigate her world toward some satisfying connection and sex. I’m grateful her experience is only one I visit and not one I live in quite the way she does.

(Which is not to say I haven’t had to negotiate my own experiences of dismissal as a feminine queer person from and in the company of other (often more masculine-acting-and-appearing) queer folks — those are as ongoing as my experiences of dismissal as a feminine person in a misogynist world; queer women certainly don’t have a corner on misogynist behavior; we learn it growing up on a planet that generally continues to treat women as lesser-than, as doormats, as deserving of terrible treatment, as no more than the ladies’ auxiliary to the Real of the Masculine. So.)

But it’s not always easy to move from trauma POV to consensual-sex POV, and this weekend, it was a hard transition for me. I had a pounding headache by the end of the show, and just wanted to go home, get out of my glitter, put on my pajamas, and cuddle into bed next to my sweetheart. At the same time, I felt how powerful it was to occupy a space in which the erotic was a site of pleasure, joy, positive power, and even enlightenment. I get this almost always from being with horehound stillpoint’s poetry, and this weekend’s PPO performance from him was no exception. Listening to his piece, I was dropped into another world, not the one I usually live in, but one in which people get the sex they want exactly when they want it because they are willing to risk extreme  physical and emotional vulnerability. I remember that there is a world in which people are not navigating triggers every time they have a sexual feeling (it’s very hard for me to remember this one, to remember or believe that there are people not stepping through a minefield every time they want to have sex). I am immersed in a community able to laugh easily and readily about sex, a community that experiences and celebrates the erotic in all of its pleasurable and consensual forms: messy, leather-clad, monogamous, vanilla, queer, less queer, all genders, all sexualities, no holds barred.  How to say this: I am always deeply grateful to Lori Selke and Simon Sheppard and Carol Queen by the end of every Perverts Put Out show, for continuing to create and hold open a complicatedly-erotic space, one that can hold what’s gorgeous and what’s difficult about sex and desire, one that can make murky those usually-rigid edges of our identities, blurring what we thought was so clear about who we are and what we want. In this space I am reminded why I believe it’s important for us to write about and share our stories about sex: these are the stories of our vulnerable selves. These are the stories about our naked humanness. These are the stories about our tenderness, our healing, our reaching for desire even after a lifetime of having desire used against us.

There’s every reason not to write about sex — there are so many other, more important things to write about: violence, for instance. This weekend my sweetheart was talking about how much more comfortable her son is with violence than with sex, and that’s by design. As a culture, we allow kids to see violated bodies and gun battles during commercial breaks and movie trailers, but we “protect” them from the idea of consensual erotic desire — because that’s bad for them. I am not advocating that we begin to write erotic fiction for children, but want to call out (again, as so many others have and do and will) this discrepancy in our culture: we are a lot more comfortable talking about violence than we are talking about desire. Violence is power; desire is vulnerability. Violence has anger behind it, which fills us with adrenaline and anger and a sense of invulnerability. Sex fills us with uncetainty; we feel exposed and defenseless — to be in the body of our wanting is to be in the body of loss and sorrow and history, as well as in the (possible) body of pleasure. Sex is momentary, personal, individual, pleasure-seeking. How can it help our rage-blistering planet to write about sex, to heal our erotic selves, to relearn (if we need to) how to occupy a place of pleasure during our lifetimes?

But, how could it not? In my church this weekend, a woman asked for prayers for the women of iraq, who are facing the possible reinstatement of laws enforcing female genital mutilation, genital cutting. Many of the stories about sexual violence in the newspaper are about rape used as a weapon of violence, a weapon of war — and the aftermath for the victims. Sex is seen by those in power as a site of tremendous vulnerability. Women’s sex is a site to be controlled, and violating women is still used as a way to send a message to men — even today, in the new millennium, women are treated as male property in this way. Men are sexually violated as a way for other men to exert power over them; in many mindsets, to be penetrated is to be emasculated, disempowered, don’t forget. In light of all this, under the weight of so much violence that accrues to the act and the body of sex, the choice to occupy one’s own sex as a place of pleasure and power is an extraordinary act. The willingness of a survivor (and, frankly, nearly none of us, no matter our gender or sexuality, can grow up with our sex unscathed, even if we weren’t directly physically violated) to walk through the fire back toward one’s own fully-embodied erotic self is an act of radical self care and also an act of resistance to and in a culture that would have us view sex as merely a place of procreation, non-consensual dominance, and disempowerment — that would have us willingly hand over one of our most extraordinary human capacities to the advertisers.

This is what I have to remind myself after being immersed in trauma story for too long: Choosing to fully (re)occupy our sexual selves, and holding open space for others to do the same, continues to be a radical act. I believe that those in control fear an erotically-liberated populace. Those who refuse to be shamed about their sex are those who are harder to manipulate, control, advertise to, or subtly violate. Those are the ones who turn off the tv or interrogate what they are being fed on the screen. Those are the ones who get slippery, are harder to get a hold on, are harder to shove into boxes of identity, are harder to wield on behalf of someone else’s non-liberatory aims.

We deserve erotic pleasure. We deserve erotic liberation. We deserve to tell and inhabit the whole range of our human stories — and in so doing, I believe that we at least open up the space in which the world can change for the better. So please keep going. We need all of your stories if we want this planet to heal.

“know it while you have it”

256px-Charles_Bukowski_916Good morning good morning. It’s hot here, and the sun is already high in the sky, coating everything in yikes. How’s the body of the earth where you are?

Here’s your tired writer, two mornings in a row getting a late start because I had a late night because… well, two nights ago I was out late at the Erotic Reading Circle, listening to powerful writers share their gorgeously hot work. Last night I was up late reading Martha Beck’s Leaving The Saints. If you find the through-line that ties those things together, let me know.

I’ve got two workshops this weekend I need to prepare for (Dirty Words on Saturday (join us if you’d like!), and Dive Deep on Sunday); also, I’m performing tomorrow night at a long-running reading series called Perverts Put Out, and I’ve got to write something for that show, so I don’t have much of a blog for you today. (I’m hanging out at the Peet’s near my place, the one in the shadow of the new and fancy Catholic Church they built at the edge of Lake Merritt — maybe that will provide some inspiration. Wish me luck.)

But I’ve got this poem I want to share with you. Be easy with yourselves today, ok? And I will try to do the same.

the laughing heart

- Charles Bukowski

your life is your life.
don’t let it be clubbed into dank
submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the
darkness
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you
chances.
know them, take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death
in life,
sometimes.
and the more often you
learn to do it,
the more light there will
be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have
it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in
you.