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NaBloPoMo #16: “it’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday”

My stepfather used to say, “You can do whatever you want in private, as long as you look good when you’re out in the world.” He adored that sentiment, appreciated, I believe, being able to play the good and loving father when we were out to dinner or spending time with family friends, and then come home and either sexually violate one of us, say, or spend the night either psychologically torturing his us with mind-numbingly long talks about how some small aspect of one family member’s behavior was an indication of a larger pattern of disrespect and bad thoughts (akin to the re-education techniques used during the Chinese cultural revolution). He counted on this public-private split, the well-developed expectation of a man (particularly a man of a certain class) to act however he wants to at home or in private as long as, in public, he keeps himself together.

In yesterday’s NYT magazine (you may notice a pattern here, with respect to the place where I find things to rant about these days), there was an article about how the FBI apparently sent a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, threatening to expose his sexual liaisons with women other than his wife. The article makes reference to a press that was, in the early 1960s, “more cautious” than today’s media:

“F.B.I. officials began to peddle information about King’s hotel-room activities to friendly members of the press, hoping to discredit the civil rights leader. To their astonishment, the story went nowhere. If anything, as the F.B.I. learned more about his sexual adventures, King only seemed to be gaining in public stature. […]

Today it is almost impossible to imagine the press refusing a juicy story. To a scandal-hungry media, the bedroom practices of our public officials and moral leaders are usually fair game. And a sex scandal is often — though not always — a cheap one-way ticket out of public life. Faced with today’s political environment, perhaps King would have made different decisions in his personal affairs. Perhaps, though, he never would have had the chance to emerge as the public leader he ultimately became.

Luckily, in 1964 the media were far more cautious. One oddity of Hoover’s campaign against King is that it mostly flopped, and the F.B.I. never succeeded in seriously damaging King’s public image. Half a century later, we look upon King as a model of moral courage and human dignity. Hoover, by contrast, has become almost universally reviled. In this context, perhaps the most surprising aspect of their story is not what the F.B.I. attempted, but what it failed to do.” (emphasis mine)

Back in September, the NYT magazine ran an article pulled from the recently released book about the same topic, claiming that the way the press dealt with Gary Hart’s extramarital activities caused the downfall of American politics, creating a press that cared more about character than causes, that spent more ink and column inches on what politicians did in the bedroom (or hotel room, or bathroom stalls — hello, Larry Craig) than they did in Congress or the Oval Office or state houses.

Both articles seem nostalgic for a time when a man could stand in front of the country and expect the people to focus only on that man’s public words and deeds, when he could count on the hard split between the public and private spheres, when a man could get a little on the side and not be questioned about it. For goodness’ sake, a man’s private affairs didn’t have any bearing on his good public works! Access to women’s bodies (or young men’s bodies, in many cases) just went with the territory, and the press didn’t pay it any mind — that was simply the way things were. How come we can’t go back to the good old days?

This is the same logic that kept child abusers and wife beaters in power, the same logic that kept women and children quiet because a man could still hold (can still hold) positions of great power in public, be seen as a pillar of the community, while at home given full and complete license to behave however he wishes.

Now — it may sound like I’m comparing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to a child abuser. No. I am, however, questioning the cultural longing for blinders that were meant to provide men in power with cover for behaviors that they kept secret (believing those behaviors wouldn’t  stand up to public scrutiny), blinders we in the public were supposed to wear so that they could keep on engaging in those secret, private acts at their whim.

(I also question assertion of the author of the Dr. King story that a sex-scandal is a one-way ticket out of politics — please see Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, et al for more there.)

I am not a fan of mud-slinging, dirty politics. I, too, wish our campaigns could focus more on issues, the plans that each individual candidate has for improving our communities and our country, rather than on dealing dish about a candidate’s private life.

I also wish that folks comported themselves in private in a way that they themselves would stand up for in the light of the cameras.

Frankly, as a woman, as a queer person, as a survivor of sexual violence, I am grateful that members of the press — and the rest of us — are beginning to remove these blinders and take seriously the private behavior of those in positions of power in this country.

Neither article asks or even considers what seems to me to be a fairly straightforward question — why do these politicians (mostly male) continue to believe that they get to behave badly in private? Why do we as a culture think that someone’s private behavior doesn’t impact their public works?

I think about the men in power passing or enforcing homophobic laws who are, in private, meeting their male lovers or call boys. I think about men with constant access to the bodies of young men (football coaches, priests, let’s say) who decide that it is their right to misuse those young men and boys, sexually violate and debase them, while absolutely expecting that their professional communities — and the community at large — will support them.

And we do. We as a culture have developed massive institutional constructs within which men of power are given license to access the bodies of women, young men, and children, and we as a culture are still supposed to turn a blind eye if those same men also do “good works” for the community.

It sounds to me that this is what the authors of these books and articles are actually decrying: the fissuring of these institutional infrastructures, and the fact that just a little bit of light has begun to shine into these secret rooms.

I have an idea for politicians who don’t want the press to focus more on their private life than their public works: comport yourself in private in a way that you are proud of, that you are willing to invite your constituents to be proud of. If you are a politician who, for instance, likes BDSM play or has an agreement with your partner that allows for relationships with other people, stand up for that part of your life. Notice what happened when queer folks started refusing to be ashamed of their desire, and began claiming publicly all of who they were. Be willing to own your consensual sexuality and then get back to talking about the matters at hand, the work you want to do for your community or country; think about how to respond to the questions that call your consensual, adult sexuality into question, rather than shrinking from the fullness of your sexual self and hiding behind the safe haven of shame. If you choose to access the services of sex workers, then work to improve the conditions of their labor, just as you say you want to improve the condition of all of your constituents’ working conditions. Ensure them a living wage and health care; legalize their work. Don’t take advantage of trafficked children or others. Don’t sneak around, taking advantage of a system that harms everyone but you.

I am mostly curious about the profoundly overdeveloped sense of entitlement these men seem to have. What convinces them that they will be the one whose dalliances with underage pages or sexual harassment of coworkers or multiple extramarital affairs will escape public notice? What assurances have they received along the way that their private behavior will not be used against them? Why do they set themselves up for blackmail and public excoriation?

I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t use a pseudonym for my erotic writing, in large part because of my stepfather’s philosophy of a public/private split self — I never wanted to be blackmailable. I wanted to be the same person in all parts of my life. Of course, I understood that this decision might limit my chances to, say, run for public office — thank goodness that this has never been an aspiration of mine.

NaBloPoMo #15: I get clean by writing it

Today’s post comes from the Fearless Words writing group — our prompt came from the group itself: how do we get clean?

How do you get clean? You know — inside? How do you begin to release that sense that you are dirty, soiled, smeared with someone else’s stain?

We took about 8 minutes — and this is what came for me (with only small edits):

I get clean by writing it. I take the stories out of my body and let the page hold them, too. And I get clean by crying. So many buckets and buckets of ears, a sea full. a world full. I cry because crying is what brings the body back to itself. Cry and dance and sweat and move the damp through the body’s pores and the toxins are flooded out. They say that every seven years, every one of the body’s cells has replaced itself. One day I realized that this means that he has never touched the skin I’m in now. I have sloughed and shed the places he put his body against or into mine — I have sloughed him. I get clean by getting messy, by telling the truth, surrounding myself with a love that never thought me dirty in the first place.

NaBloPoMo #14: you always believed we could have something more

Today’s post is brought to you by last Saturday’s Dirty Words Sacramento writing group. For our introductory prompt, I read aloud the C.P. Cavafy poem entitled “Body, Remember,” which begins with the line, “Body, remember not only how much you were loved…”

We had ten minutes. Here’s what came for me:

Body, remember how hard it used to be? Remember the armor we wore and the disappointment? Remember the long hours spread open and aching, trying trying trying for release that wouldn’t come? Remember the tension in knees and thighs, how you hardened against the memory, against the loss? Remember how we worked together, one orgasm at a time, to untether you from your pain? Remember how you wanted something easy, how you imagined that someday sex would leave you not spent and sobbing and sorrowful but delighted and laughing and free?  Remember how we thought that was impossible, remember how we thought history, the memory of old hands, unwanted touch, unasked-for experience would always be a skin we lived inside of, something we would have sex through forever? Remember. But in spite of that centering and sorrow, you didn’t quit, body. You always believed we could have something more — or maybe simply something else — sex that didn’t feel like a battleground or a crime scene, sex that instead simply (simply?) felt like connection and opening, power and joy. We are getting there, body, you and I, to a sex that can be free. We stayed on this long road for all these years and never would you let me put sex down, even when I wanted to, remember? And now — now — maybe I am beginning to understand why.

NaBloPoMo #13: In which I wrangle, again, with my fury around queermasculine privilege

Good morning good morning. My sweetheart was up at the crack that precedes the crack of dawn so that she could get on an airplane by6am, so I followed in her wake, pulling myself out of bed. It’s quiet this morning, and raining. I put on a little music to mitigate against the silence. Under the throb of the baseline, I hear the tick of raindrops against the windows.

The writing I have to do today feels sticky and messy and is absolutely full of energy, and I’ve stopped myself from writing out of fear that I’m voicing things that aren’t supposed to be said. Out of fear that I’ll offend the exact people I’m angry with. And so I stop, freeze up at the page, write off in different directions whenever I try to tackle the subject. The words remain, tarry and complicated in my belly, and I keep swallowing and swallowing my anger and disappointment, and I end up feeling more isolated, and less able to write or speak about anything. I’ve found over these years that when I silence myself in one area, I end up feeling silenced all throughout the different parts of my life. I’m not going to repeat that Audre Lorde quote about speaking up whether or not one is afraid, but it’s absolutely pushing me forward here.

(Some of you who aren’t all knotted up in the interweavings of queer women’s/trans* gender politics might want to break away and go find something else to read just now … or, you know, if, as you’re reading, you’ve got questions about terminology or anything, please do let me know.)

[ETA: Thanks to my friend Marlene, who informed/reminded me about “the space” when writing about trans* folks — I’ve made adjustments in this post to reflect this learning!]

A month or so ago, the New York Times magazine published an article about trans men at historically women’s colleges. The author of the piece profiled a handful of trans men at Wellesley college who have felt, it seems, wholly entitled to demand that, now that they have transitioned and are living in the world as men and desiring that the world see and meet and treat them as men, these colleges that were developed for women (and have grown up around the belief that there should be some places in male-supremacist society that privilege women’s voices and thought) should alter their language and lens to be more welcoming of men. That they should quit speaking of sisterhood. That professors should quit using “she” as a neutral or default pronoun (as an answer-back to the hundreds of years in which all readers and interlocutors were meant to hear themselves included in the pronoun “he,” regardless of their gender). That, in fact, the school might even want to consider not calling itself a women’s college — as that denotation was now oppressive to these folks who had enrolled, intentionally, at a women’s college, in order that they might be welcomed for all of who they are. And the colleges are acquiescing to these demands. Made by men. Never mind that, until only very recently, and still at only some of these historically women’s colleges, folks who are living in the world as women (who the colleges are ostensibly dedicated to serving and educating) have been shut-out without a thought. Trans women continue to be seen as men-in-women’s-clothing, as infiltrators, as frauds. These women are denied access to the very resources made available to the trans men who now want to change the culture of these institutions that they may feel more comfortable.

I was astonished at how much anger rose up in me as I read this article. I would pause in my reading, throw the magazine to the couch and start ranting, then pick up the pages and start reading again, only to throw it down again a few moments later. I didn’t know what to do with all this fury — but I understood that it would be dangerous for me to go to facebook or twitter with it. We are supposed to be good and vociferous allies of trans men, we femme dykes. My job as a member of the queer ladies auxiliary was to jump into the comments section and defend our brothers’ right to undermine our cultural institutions and demand  that they be made more comfortable. It is my job to bolster their masculinity by standing up for them — that’s what girls do.

Meanwhile, my sisters are left outside the gates, and there are trans men inside who defend that policy — parroting the same sort of transphobic, transmisogynist bullshit that gets used at Michigan to keep trans women out:

“Others are wary of opening Wellesley’s doors too quickly — including one of Wellesley’s trans men, who asked not to be named because he knew how unpopular his stance would be. He said that Wellesley should accept only trans women who have begun sex-changing medical treatment or have legally changed their names or sex on their driver’s licenses or birth certificates. ‘I know that’s a lot to ask of an 18-year-old just applying to college,’ he said, ‘but at the same time, Wellesley needs to maintain its integrity as a safe space for women. What if someone who is male-bodied comes here genuinely identified as female, and then decides after a year or two that they identify as male — and wants to stay at Wellesley? How’s that different from admitting a biological male who identifies as a man? Trans men are a different case; we were raised female, we know what it’s like to be treated as females and we have been discriminated against as females. We get what life has been like for women.’” (from the NYT Magazine article; emphasis mine.)

(Thankfully, Mills College recently shifted their policies to welcome all women, including trans women.)

I have been horrified at how our queer women’s community turns itself inside out to adulate the male and masculine. We fawn over the masculine woman, the butch dyke, the trans-masculine, the masculine of center (MOC). We fall over ourselves to make excuses for MOC folks who have assaulted, harassed, or raped our femme sisters. We call it he said-she said, and don’t (apparently) see the irony — and then we turn around and talk about trans women are a threat to women’s safety because there’s (maybe) a penis in the house.

Hello? Have you been in a room full of butches? Do you know how many cocks are being psychically wielded in that space? I’ve been in the room while the (at that time, majority butch) SF Dyke March committee argued — again— about whether or not trans women were to be explicitly “allowed” at the march (as though anyone could keep anyone from entering a public park — and as though the place wasn’t always crawling with the male friends of attendees), and experienced the butch group members shouting over one another, and certainly over the couple of femmes in the room, to make sure they got across their point that it was trans women who brought male energy into the space.  Whew.

I’m not trying to get into a conversation about the border policing of women’s spaces, or defining who is a woman (folks define that for themselves, thank you), and I am not saying, of course, that there should not be queer spaces open to all queer folks and those we love and those who love us. I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t adore our beloveds who transgress gender toward the masculine side of the spectrum. This is a piece about the unquestioned privileging of masculinity — and how fucking tired I am of it.

I think we get to have queer women’s spaces where it’s ok to be a woman. Where it’s ok to call yourself a woman. Where it’s ok to talk about womanness. Where woman gets to be something that’s good, as well as fraught and challenged and challenging. Where I don’t have to swallow my tongue when I want to speak about what I deal with as a queer, femme woman in the US because someone masculine of center might not resonate with what I’m saying. Meanwhile, MOC takes over the cultural conversation around queerness,and I’m supposed to act like that’s right up my alley. Universal “he,” anyone?

Of course, I get it that the NYT Magazine article wanted a readership and manged to find trans men willing to articulate extreme positions — I am certain that there are trans men at historically women’s colleges who value the space exactly because it was created by and for women, and understand that they have transitioned into a role that gives them a measure of privilege (even as it may also (for some trans men) bring with it cultural baggage and hostilities that accrue to men of color) and who allow themselves to acknowledge the very great honor they are receiving as men in a space designed and historically set aside for women. Understanding that everywhere else in the world, given that they are now read and received as men, their voice will be given primacy and privilege, they allow themselves to listen more than they talk — they go about the business of learning to be different sorts of men.

For me (admittedly a plain old cisgendered ostensibly-femme dyke), it’s pretty straightforward: if you don’t identify as a woman, go ahead and step out of the handful of spaces set aside for folks who do identify as women. Affinity spaces serve a purpose. Some places are not open to everyone — and historically oppressed folks get to set aside some spaces for themselves in which to gather, heal, educate, collaborate, and grow. Just because you don’t get to be inside those spaces anymore, because you have decided that your body and soul are better attuned to a different gender, a different way of being in the world, does not mean that you get to go about fissuring those spaces, breaking them open in order to serve you better. That, right there, my friends, in this case, is male privilege speaking.

I can remember my ex (who once identified as a trans-butch dyke, and may still, for all I know) raging about the way queer women allowed their spaces to be coöpted — he told the story of The Cafe in San Francisco, once a dyke bar, from which the women fled once men started coming in to dance (straight men, I think, mostly). Why didn’t we stand up for ourselves? Why didn’t we claim their space? Why don’t we? he wanted to know. But women are trained at a primal level to bow to the masculine, in order to keep ourselves safe. So we tuck our tails, mumble under our breaths, and walk away, only to complain later about how good that space used to be when it was ours.

It’s true that I have a lot of anger about the ways in which the masculine is revered as the be all and end all of dykehood. Perhaps you know this already, having attended one of my performances recently at which Althea Xtravananza makes an appearance. I experienced a profound loss of visibility and respect in the community (and the world, let’s be honest) when I transitioned from butch to femme — suddenly, I turned back into a regular girl, nothing queer or subversive going on here anymore. No more sexual agency (unless I explicitly and actively perform femme top/mistress or femme sub/little girl), no more recognition by other queer women when walking down the street, and suddenly my voice is just a little less valuable, even among other women, and my worth is just a little more about my sexual availability. Lovely.

I wonder what it means for us as a queer women’s community that we are unwilling to deal directly with the ways in which we continue to privilege and revere masculinity, undermine and devalue femininity. Femininity, even among queer or lesbian-identified women, continues to mean weakness and frivolity. Masculinity continues to be equated with strength and seriousness. This lens impacts the weight and value we give to different voices in our community — the masculine voice continues to be privileged, whether that masculinity is packaged as butch or trans male or MOC or whatever masculine-identifier of choice you’d like to use today. Why are historically women’s colleges so afraid of a backlash that they would so quickly begin to question and even alter their admission policies, when trans women have for decades been asking to be recognized as the women they are, as women who should be welcome on these campuses? When will we begin to decenter (queer) masculine voices with the intention of holding persons of all genders in the same high regard and respect?

 

NaBloPoMo #12: why I write

This write is from a Write Whole group last summer — this was an introductory write, designed to get our pens moving and our hands loosened up. The prompt was “Why I write,” and this is what came for me in those 8 minutes. This one took a turn midway through that surprised me, but that’s not at all uncommon during these writes:

I write to put teeth back in it — teeth and knives and nails. I write to find the shape of my fist, the smile of my backhand, I write to find a shape for the violence that has no outlet anywhere else, for the violence that contours throat and belly, for the violence that crafted the trajectory of my whole adulthood. I write to find a container for the rage, trace the edge of the blade.

This is supposed to be gentle and kind. This is supposed to be pacifist and non-violent. The editors and censors and worriers jump in quick — justify yourself, they say. Clean up that mess you’re about to make.

I write because I’m not supposed to tell his stories — or, later, his. Because I carry the bilge of a broken marriage still burnt and straining in my muscles, the years of someone else’s terror released as control and — what do I say — shame into my body, my love, still slick down all my tender insides, still shaping every new voice I hear.  [redacted] What I really want to say is I still don’t have all the words for those years of loss, nor access to what joy I believe was true between us. The rage doesn’t end just because I moved out of his bedroom — in fact, it wasn’t until I left that those true flames of sorrow and loss were truly allowed to blossom.

NaBloPoMo #11: honoring the other veterans

Good morning to you exactly where you are. I’m in my orange living room, listening to the sizzle of toasting banana-oatmeal bread. The light peeks up over the Oakland hills, breaking through the cloud cover, giving us a spray of sun.

This is what I want to tell you today: every single time I sit down to write, I freeze up. My mind goes blank. All the voices that want to tell me how stupid or crazy or has-been I am come roaring up inside my throat, behind my hears, in my belly and bones. They tear the words from my fingers and laugh at them. They want to know who I think I am. If I don’t try to write anything serious, then I’m ok. If I only write in the notebook, where the words will not be seen or heard by others, the voices quiet down. But once I sit here, fingers poised over keyboard, intention sharpening to cut through the bullshit into what I really wanted to say, the voices come hard. They know how to protect their turf. And they know how to beat me back into submission. They know I will give up sometimes, and so they come at me every time, ready to overpower me again.

Here’s what else: Today I am thinking about Veteran’s Day. I want to sit here and simply honor those who have served our military, who have given their lives, in one way or another, to the idea that the military keeps us safe. I want to easily enter into that safe and comfortable cultural narrative. And the truth is that I do honor those who went to war and were changed by that experience. I wish they had had other options. I wish they didn’t feel the need or call to take up arms against others. I wish they were more supported by their institution and by their country when they returned.

Yesterday, as I was driving down route 880 toward Sunnyvale, listening to KALW, I heard a promo for an upcoming program about the National Security State — how we in the US have been conditioned to live in an environment of perpetual war. And this morning, I got to thinking about how many of us are already conditioned to this idea that we are under siege. A traumatized population is a more-easily controlled population.

These are the wars that hold me in thrall these days: the war on women (of course including the war on transwomen), the war on children, the war on anyone who doesn’t inhabit a masculinity that values power-over and dominance.

What I really want to say is that today, on this Veteran’s Day, I want to honor the veterans of the war against female soldiers. I want to honor the veterans of military sexual assault, those who have undergone the multi-layered torment of first being attacked by a fellow soldier and then attacked by an entire institution that goes to great lengths to protect the attacker rather than hold them accountable. I want to honor the veterans of priest sexual abuse. I want to honor the veterans of those abused in foster care, schools, in fraternities, on sports teams, and in their own homes. Talk about a state of perpetual war. I want to honor today the veterans of street harassment — those who every single day have to armor up just to walk out into the world to get to work.

I want to honor those veterans of school bombings, school shootings, school attacks.

And we can talk about getting more doctors for the VA (which we need), and we can talk about educating the rank-and-file in the military about sexual assault (which I can’t believe is necessary — because do you really get to age 18 thinking that rape is actually ok?—but still, yes, good, more education), and we can talk about changing the sexual assault reporting mechanisms so that victims are not retraumatized in the process. Great.

And when will we talk about what’s really going on: that men see women, children, and some other men as prey, and feel wholly entitled in treating prey as a predator would. How do you uproot a message that seems woven into our DNA?

Today, I’d like to see all veterans of foreign and domestic wars standing together today, recognizing their common enemy — the ideology of power-over and better-than — speaking out against sexual violence and violence of all kinds, and raising their empty and open hands for peace.

NaBloPoMo #10: She did fight back

Again, I’m sharing a prompt and a write from a Fearless Words group meeting. For this exercise, we first wrote for three minutes from each of the following phrases: I remember / I don’t remember / I wish I remembered / I wish I didn’t remember…  then we took 8 more minutes to write about anything we wanted.

Here’s what came up for me:

I remember sitting slow on the back porch. I remember there was no back porch. I remember the concrete of the back patio, the smell of the yew hedge that separated the patio from mom’s garden, and how ugly those hedges were. I remember felling lost most of the time, and feeling broken and wanting to be really lost and not knowing how to run away. I remember when I understood I shouldn’t write anything real in my journals because he might read them —

She doesn’t remember exactly how it started or how old she was or where her body was or what the word “started” means when it comes to something like this, like his being in charge of her skin, her movements, her thoughts. She doesn’t remember when her mother lost her voice or when her mother stopped standing up for herself. She doesn’t remember forgetting how to breathing and learning to split her mind away from itself, learning to think two or more thoughts at one time — nor can she remember not being able to do that.

I wish I remembered those things. I wish I had concrete details, facts and numbers, time and date stamps, supportive documentation, ways to enumerate the step-by-step of his escalation. I want want to look back and point, stand with the young self I was and say, Look, there. That’s when it happened. That’s when he took over. That’s the moment when everything changed. You weren’t crazy. You were right. I wish I remembered all the ways I stood up for myself, the ways I tried to tell mom what he was doing, the ways I tried to escape, so I could tell the self who did those things, congratulations. And also, thank you.

I wish I didn’t remember everything he taught my body. I wish my body didn’t remember those long hours of lessons, the phrasings and indoctrinations. I wish my body could shed itself of that muscle memory, especially after all these years. I wish I didn’t remember how he taught me to shame myself, to blame myself or my sister, how he taught me I was at least (at least!) partly to blame. I wish I didn’t remember how he looked, what he smelled like, and how he cried.

What I remember now comes from the stories I have written and shared, what I remember rises out of the stories I tell myself. I wonder about allowing myself to remember my own resistance, how I pushed back at him and fought, that 15, 16, 17 year old girl in physical altercations with her 40-something stepfather , how I battled hm physically and in front of my mother and sister, how I forced him to show them, over and over, who he really was. This was a telling, one more telling, one more that my mother refused to acknowledge. I remember pushing his limits of what could and could not be said when my mother was present, I remember risking his wrath if only she could hear me, would understand what he was doing to her daughters right under her nose. She was not able to hear me — this is the way I save her now. I say that she could not hear me — not that she would not. And, of course, my body resisted — in her very musculature. I tell myself these stories to counteract the other stories, the ones I rehearse so easily, too often, that I simply capitulated, gave in, and never asked for help, never told. These are not true stories, and I want to honor the girl I was enough to tell her whole truth, with all its layers and mess. She did fight back. She fought like hell, and eventually she fought our way free.

NaBloPoMo #9: from echo and hope and worry

Another of the prompts we used during the AI writing group I offered for Sade Huron’s class was the classic poem “Where I’m from” by George Ella Lyon. I’ve used this prompt repeatedly (as have many, many other facilitators), and it never fails to bring  a new spin on the introductory autobiography — rather than telling simple facts about the who/what/where/when of our histories, we get into sensory detail and metaphor.

We were doing 5-minute writes, and here’s what came up for me:

I’m from echo and hope and worry. Take home that longing. I’m from red brick dust and the smell of old cows and dice and scrub canyon and loss. I’m from cottonwood and gas lamp and Laura Ingalls Wilder, the smell I imagined my grandfather lived in when he was a little boy in a sod house, his bedroom with his parents dug deep into the ground. Stop running, stop running. I’m from cornfield and wheat grass and monarch butterflies kept tight in the moonshine, no, the moon flower, no, the marsh grass, no, the milkweed, and fluttering, hollow and cherry, on the front grill of my father’s 1972 vw bus.

NaBloPoMo #8: but you know I left first

This write comes from a short workshop I did in my friend Sade Huron‘s class at AI of San Francisco, introducing their directing and filmmaking students to the process of freewriting. We did several quick (5 min.) writes, which was intended to help them get their ideas flowing freely before they started to write about the sort of film they wanted to make.

One of the prompts I offered was Pat Schneider’s “In this one you are” visualization…

Here’s what came up for me this time around:

In this one you are still alive. You are holding my hand. You haven’t gone yet, nor have I. In this one you crawl around on my body like I am a jungle gym. In this one, I am safe ground for your exploring. you haven’t gone away yet. But, of course, I was the one who went first. I went first. I keep these pictures on my mantle now, on my altar, by way of apology or wish. Maybe someday I can go back there. Maybe something in me can tough the hands use used to have before you used them to tie something I’ll never be able to see into a noose around your neck and then let go; you let all of yourself go. I have no photo of your death, only of your beginnings, so many of your beginnings, when you were a skinny boy with too much hope and fear in your eyes, when I was still something steady, before the ground I was to you stood up, shook you off, and went away.

NaBloPoMo #7: the things we leave behind don’t leave us

This one comes from a write we did at the beginning of a Dive Deep meeting — our prompt was this one from Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave: A Memoir: “I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you. Or drag you down with the immense sadness at being abandoned.”

We had about 10 minutes to write. Here’s what came for me:

Eventually, everything began to slow down. The gears began to rust and hesitate, the careful machinery of her life began to catch, cough, stutter. She noticed she couldn’t walk as as fast anymore — her body held her back, held her down, something pulled at all the fibers of her musculature. Something tethered her.

She had done so well; everyone said so —after the rape, she lept into action, prosecuted her assailant, dove back into school work with a vengeance, refusing to shed even tenths of percentage points off her GPA after the school refused to discipline the man who had assaulted her, even when the criminal court had found him guilty — she turned her attention from studio art and dance to political science and women’s studies, graduated cum laude, gave a valedictory speech that brought most of her graduating class to their feet. She studied tae kwon do and meditation, ran daily (even through dark and isolated areas), refused to give in to any temptation she thought might mean he’d won. She worked with others to develop public policy that would force schools to hold rapists accountable. She gave speeches, wrote a book, toured internationally.

Hadn’t she become a success?

Meanwhile, the world goes on —  by 35, it was as though something in her snagged. Her muscles grew sluggish, though she hadn’t slacked her daily exercise regimen. The stories of other survivors’ traumas began to seep through her pores; one day she nearly wept while giving testimony at a public information session before a legislature. Every night when she closed her eyes, the paintings she’d abandoned floated like hanged men. But what good was art in times like these? How could painting make any difference at all? But the paintings would not leave her alone.

(Note: The line “Meanwhile the world goes on” comes from the Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese.”)