Category Archives: Uncategorized

“I had something else in mind to do”

There was something I wanted to keep dreaming. I keep the lights off, light the candle, dim the screen on the computer monitor, start to type. Can I find it again?

The therapist says to me, you are so afraid. She asks about my anger, and we end up talking about fear. I am afraid my mother will leave me again, I am afraid my stepfather could still come after me, I am afraid of failing and of succeeding, I am afraid of being too much and not enough. I think about the small one in me, still so afraid, probably 12 years old, that kid who was so angry. Something got stopped there, around her fury, her sorrow, her confusion — wait, this isn’t really happening, is it? He’s not really going to talk to my mom like that? He’s not going to be allowed to talk to us like that, is he? She’s going to call him out, she’s going to challenge him. This isn’t going to be our life.

Didn’t I think for a little while that maybe that wouldn’t really be our life?

I have been thinking about regret, about how much I imagine now that I might have been able to do with the last 20 years of my life if I hadn’t been, first and foremost, focused on surviving.

Yes, I know we get to be grateful for the places we get to eventually — we get to be grateful that, eventually, we heal enough that we can find a way back into intimacy. We can find a way back into love. We can find a way back into these bodies that have carried us around, and even through hell. Eventually we find a way home, into ourselves and our real lives, if we are lucky and persistent and don’t die in the meantime. Please hear me: this isn’t about self pity – I just feel sad.

When we say they steal our souls, steal our lives, this is what we mean — they impact what we can do with our capacity, our possibility, our incipience, our nascence. They leak their barrels of crude oil into the complex and just-becoming pond that we were, they poison all of the very many different selves we had before us to possibly become.

And so, instead of getting to focus our energies on becoming one of those many selves, instead we spend our years cleaning the pond, trying to remove the oil. First coming in with big booms to isolate and clear out what remains of the spill en mass, taking away the biggest clumps of poison, soaking it up into some kind of nontoxic material that can hold it safely away from us, then we wipe off the biggest animals, the ducks and muskrats and deer and raccoons; one by one, wipe out eyes, wash and wash until most of the oil is gone. We clear away what died in the soil, after spending years trying to fertilize, heal, bring it back to life. We spread out fire-retardant material, we post sentries and guards at the edges of the pond, all around, trying to keep watch on all sides, wanting to keep out anyone who might want to pollute us so badly again. Sometimes we are successful. Sometimes we are not — but the energy expended is still the same.

We spend years wondering why anyone would want to do such a thing to such a pristine and needed landscape.

We teach ourselves biologics, become environmentalists, scientists — we learn to develop little animals that will feed on what’s left of the poison, that will consume what molecules are left in the water and will seek out the bits that fell to the floor of the pond, permeated the water, soaked into the sand, coated the tadpoles and minnows and frogs and turtles, got inside their mouths, ate into the grasses and pond marsh and tilted the ecosystem toward death. We spend the bulb and blossom of our lives just trying to clean up a toxic waste site.

We watch our friends come into full flower: making connections, reaching out, writing books, making marriages and families, developing their craft, developing their skills, developing themselves; we watch them building careers, and wonder what is wrong with us. But we are still cleaning up the superfund site left inside of us. We are painstakingly wiping off every blade of grass and feather of every bird that is a necessary part of our inside selves. And the oil never is completely eradicated, we can’t clean it all up  — some of the areas impacted never recover, never bounce back, never become what they ought to have been able to become. And then we simply have to mourn their loss, grieve what they might have been. Meanwhile, the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain … and also, meanwhile, there are other oil spills everywhere, meanwhile those who polluted us are allowed to continue with their devastation, meanwhile the balance of power is not upset, meanwhile you and I spend years teaching ourselves and then teaching others how to clean up the mess that our perpetrators made of our souls, made of our lives.

What if there was something els we had in mind to do?

There is a Dorothy Allison poem that lives in me — it was written in the aftermath of the homophobic murder of a lesbian in Boston, who was splashed with gasoline and set on fire. In the poem, the narrator imagines the voice of that woman who’d been alit, “This is not all I am / I hd something more in mind to do.” (From the poem “boston , massachusetts,” in the collection, The Women Who Hate Me)

Something in us screams this as well. This is not all I am. I had something more in mind to do. I wanted to be more than a survivor, more something that needed to be healed. We are forced, though someone else’s actions, to turn our precious attentions, to turn the energy of our one wild and precious life to the effort of cleaning up someone else’s mess — and for may years we feel like that mess is us. I felt like that mess was me. 20 years — half of my life so far. What if I’d had something else in mind to do?

Some choices are made for us. But sometimes — eventually — we get to make different choices for ourselves. We clean off the last feather of the last duck, we have rehabilitated the wild grassland that was so devastated, roped it off long enough that there’s new life beginning to emerge, the treebirds have begun to return, we can see bees and butterflies  in the wildflowers that have begun to blossom again, little fish have come back out of hiding, eventually, we can be restored.. The landscape, the habitat, is never returned to exactly the state it was before the disaster — but it can heal.

I know I’m taking this metaphor too far, but I can’t stop today. Rehabilitating a wild ecosystem is an enormous undertaking, one that takes time and money and resources that we might have otherwise devoted to other efforts, other work, other interests, other curiosities. And it’s an effort that often goes almost wholly unseen.

And it’s one thing if we are rehabilitating something in the aftermath of a natural disaster, but instead we are trying to take back what another human being — or, sometimes, a whole society — decided to try and ruin, to take for themselves, to spill all over and into and leave covered with his garbage. We, the ecosystem, the landscape, are not garbage. We are not trash, and we deserve all of the effort at cleanup. We deserve to have every bit of our ecosystem attended to during the cleanup process — every microbe, every biological organism, every single-celled paramecium, every shellfish dug into the mud, every clump of wild rose, every spray of tidegrass, every layer of water that expands and contracts through winter freezes and spring thaws and the hot labor of summer — every bit of ourselves deserves attending to. And the truth is that we might have done something else with all of that time and attention. And it isn’t fair. And yes, we do it anyway. We ought to have been able to do what our classmates or neighborhood friends did and just turned our attentions outward, toward our curiosities, our growth and potential, we ought to have just been able to sit back and nurture the wild complexity that was our inner self and, while continuing to tend to all of the layers, inner and outer, deep water and treetop, birds and fish, then live into the complex diversity that would emerge in us and of us.

Do you understand what I am saying? I am trying to find a language for what is stolen from us — actually taken. It’s not our souls — our souls are always with us. What’s stolen is our time. We have precious little time in this life, and that is what they take from us. That is what is irreplaceable. Our bodies and hearts recuperate, because we are extraordinarily resilient, because we are capable and adoring, because we don’t take no for an answer from the bits of inside self that want to give up and die. Many of us don’t die. But our trajectories are forever altered. Our lives are interrupted, turned. Our sovereignty is inflicted upon, eroded, the life we were becoming gets aborted, in favor of cleaning someone else’s mess.

They don’t have to clean us up, those who wreak the havoc in the first place. They’re off in their lives — maybe unimpacted, maybe continuing to create destruction elsewhere around the world, and in and on others, maybe confined to a cell or in the absence of other victims, having only themselves to desecrate. But they are not the ones who have to clean up after themselves. What would that look like? What would a system of justice look like that would demand that those who perpetrate intimate violence have to make it possible for the mess they made gets cleaned up — and they are on the hook until their damage is righted? Not that we are property that has been damaged or broken, but that we are a habitat that needs to be restored.

Of course it’s not too late — it’s never too late to be the selves we might have become. e.e. cummings is said to have said, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” We become hybrid — old and new selves, old and new growth, and we take strength from the labor, the effort, the attention paid, lessons learned, from blisters and aching backs, from sorrow at what has been lost, and joy at what emerges from the ashes. For life persists in the aftermath of destruction. That’s what they can never fully kill, and what brings us rising to the surface, again and again and again.

what survivors are hungry for

(Hummingbirds are luminous and ravenous survivors — they eat 1-3 times their body weight daily, which means they must have intimate connection with hundreds of flowers each and every day. Go ahead, lovelies.)

Tonight at Lit Crawl, Writing Ourselves Whole writers will share their take on the fierce hunger of sexual trauma survivors.

(You can join us: 6pm at the Women’s Building, Room B, in San Francisco!)

Tonight, our brilliant writers — Manish Vaidya, Eanlai Cronin, Renee Garcia, Blyth Barnow, and Seeley Quest — will articulate some of what it looks like when survivors tangle with hunger: what it’s like to feel it, what it’s like not to feel it, not to allow ourselves to feel it, to think we don’t deserve it — and to finally allow ourselves consider the possibility that we do.

I am thinking this morning about how ferociously hungry are the survivor writers I’ve worked with over the last ten-plus years — writers who desperately long for something different: for an end to rape and rape culture, for an end to all forms of oppression and violence that dehumanize some in order to give others satiation and power — yes, of course, this. But then there are the individual hungers:  for connection, understanding, knowing, recognition; folks are hungry to be seen. We’re hungry for work that satisfies and challenges us, hungry to be nourished — physically and psychically, and to feel worthy of nourishment. We are hungry for intimacy, hungry for a touch that doesn’t take anything from us but instead meets and feeds us. We are hungry for change, for knowledge, for beauty, for the pen or the brush or the song or the dance, for the dark and for the light. We are hungry and struggle to feel ourselves worthy of feeding. We have been starved and often we have starved ourselves.

Radical self care means allowing ourselves to experience what we are hungry for — or, even before that, to be aware of our appetites, and to know that having an appetite isn’t what caused our violation. This is slow learning and can take years. Simply having human and animal appetites — wanting, hungering — isn’t what caused someone to harm us. They may have told us that it did, that their actions were our fault, that we were also partly to blame, because, look, we said we wanted — something. We wanted to see the puppy or taste the candy. We wanted to be touched or held, in ways that were loving or safe. We wanted to feel special and important. Sometimes our bodies wanted the sexual touch, which confused us, because we didn’t want it from this person, in this way. We wanted the toy or the special treat that we were promised, or we wanted to be able to keep safe the people or pets who were threatened. Our desires were manipulated, used against us, and so we tried to keep ourselves from wanting. If we didn’t want anything, no one could manipulate us like that again. We slid our big and small hungers into drawers and locked them up inside ourselves. We said, What, me? No, I don’t need anything. I’m fine. What do you want?

What do you want?

Our hungers don’t go away. They gnaw on the insides of those drawers, they chew through the locks and bars, they are insatiable, they do not abandon us. I am not talking about addictions here, but what the addictions are trying to keep us from feeling, to help us run from, help us ignore. We might spend years running as fast as we can to get away from the desires that have been with us all our lives: the desire to create, the desire to connect, the desire to feel, the desire to be witnessed, nourished, appreciated, make a difference, matter.

When we stop running, the hunger that catches up with us can be overwhelming. I have used lots of different things to drown it out — wine, food, television, relationship drama, too much work. All of these at the same time, some weeks. All of this to keep from having to hear that quiet and persistent voice in me that says, I am hungry to be loved for exactly who I am. I am hungry to write books that some people will read and love. I am hungry for a solid sense of home. I am hungry for playful and understanding friendships. I am hungry for family that feels safe. I am hungry to experience my body’s full and free sexual and erotic capacity — in fact, to know the full capacity of my body’s strength and speed and wisdom overall. I am hungry for a world that doesn’t organize every organism and object into a hierarchy of use to white supremacist capitalism, hungry for a world in which children aren’t treated like items on a menu, hungry for a society in which all people’s innate creative genius is recognized, valued, and nourished. I starve or overfeed myself to avoid feeling the rage and sorrow and hope that accompanies these longings, but they don’t go away.

During the first months I was offering erotic writing groups, I came to understand right away that they were about more than just sex for the writers — they were about finding and creating safe space in which to hunger, in which to openly long, a space in which that longing wouldn’t be used against us in any way, in which, in fact, we would be celebrated for that desire. Toward the end of those early groups, writers came to be aware of not simply the specificities of their erotic desires (as though that’s ever simple!), but also of desire to reconnect with their music, with their art, to find work that truly fed them. We wanted the whole of our sex back, yes, and we wanted so much more than that, too.

It is in our nature to hunger. When we try to shut those primal urges down, we implode. This starvation is a way of slowly killing ourselves. It is a way of continuing to do our violators’ work for them. Eventually, little by little, we can begin to put down that particular labor, beating up and shaming the small self within that has mouth open and hands out. We can begin to listen to that self, treat it (us, him, hir, her, them) with kindness and generosity, as we ought always to have been listened to ourselves. We can remember that that small self deserved those desires, just as we do — and did not deserve to be shamed or harmed for wanting, just as we do not. We can begin to feel what we have always been hungry for, and then, as we choose, start to feed ourselves — even start allowing ourselves to be fed.

Here’s to your gorgeous and tender hungers. Thank you for all the ways that you are allowing yourself to feel, to appreciate, and to feed your good, good self.

haze

Good morning, good morning. It’s close to 7, and I’ve been at this writing since before 5, trying to get a handle on it, trying to find out what wants to be said. Now the sky is the color of fall — a smoky orange clouded with grey — and I’m still struggling.

Since Monday, I have been thinking about football and kids and our culture of violence. That’s when my sweetheart showed me the article in the New York Times about the latest “hazing” incident at a football town in New Jersey — several senior boys have been arrested for sexually violating freshman team members in a so-called initiation ritual or hazing ritual. I won’t include the details of the crime here; you can read more about the violations, elsewhere.

As I drove home last night after the Fearless Words writing group — sitting in circle with women sharing powerful and gorgeous and difficult stories of sexual harm and its aftermath — I made the mistake of listening to the news, where I heard that John Grisham thinks men should be free to view child pornography as long as they’re older and middle or upper class and have had a little wine and went online and oops! I just landed on that child porn page! How did that happen? It was an accident, he says, one that certainly shouldn’t be punished with jail time.

So I need some help today.

This morning I’m left feeling fully outside of this country, or maybe human race, I inhabit. Even though I have been through the initiation rites for womanhood (humiliation, violation, shaming, hostility, street harassment), I still feel like an outsider — and I have no interest in doing to others what has been done to me. What is it that calls us to want to violate others? What is it that, in the case of fraternity or sorority pledges, calls us to choose violation in order to prove ourselves worthy of acceptance? What in a person is willing to teach a child, directly or through lack of action, that their violation is acceptable? Who are the adults who make space for the hazing rituals so common on sports teams or bands or Greek communities or other bonded groups?

What I want to know is where these kids learned that sexually violating their teammates was a fun thing to do, a way to bring new members into the fold, a passing on, I can only assume, of what was done to them — either in the locker room or elsewhere.

(As if I even have to ask.)

Who decides that, yes, this will be our rite of welcome, our ceremony of shame. If you want to be one of us, you have to submit to this violation — otherwise we will know that you don’t really mean it, you don’t have what it takes, you aren’t tough enough. Are these the rings we force our boys to jump through in order to become men?

Awhile ago, last fall, I wrote about the gauntlet that girls have to learn to pass through in order to inhabit adult womanhood: the way we female-gendered folks have to thicken our skin just so that we can walk out the door into the catcalls and appraising looks and voices yelling at us from cars and sidewalks and in the school hallway and even at home, telling us how we should be and what they want from us and what they want to do to us and what we ought to be to them. But what’s on the other side of that gauntlet? It’s the training that male-gendered folks receive in order to inhabit American manhood, the training that says, ‘If you want to be one of us, you have to be able to dish this out. You have to be able to demoralize and terrorize. You have to be able to take the violence into your body so that you can give it to others.” We dehumanize our boys, and then stand back with our hands over our mouths in astonishment when they are paraded before us in handcuffs having acted just as we trained them to.

“the imposition of strenuous, often humiliating tasks as part of a program of rigorous physical training and initiation; humiliating and sometimes dangerous initiation rituals, esp. as imposed on college students seeking membership to a fraternity or sorority.” That’s how my dictionary defines hazing — the focus being on initiation and humiliation.

humiliate means to make someone feel ashamed and foolish by injuring their dignity and self respect, especially publicly.

The community of Sayreville, NJ, was “divided” after the story broke about the sexual assault of young players. Divided because of what the sudden attention to this violence might mean for the football team, for the football season. What does it say about us as a culture that we will rally to the defense of assailants and violators just to ensure that the game doesn’t go away? The game, of course, being bigger than football — but about American masculinity

(Hazing and other rituals of humiliation, of course, aren’t only practiced by historically male or masculine institutions— plenty of girls and women have been harmed by hazing activities —there’s the story of older sorority sisters forcing pledges to strip and then circling each one and, using a sharpie marker, marking places on the girls’ bodies that aren’t up to sorority standards, circling places of fat or flab that the older sisters want to see gone. But women like to inflict violence, too — maybe it’s in an attempt to be seen as as good as the guys — we can take it too, you know. Women’s soccer has had a number of hazing incidents come to light recently, and women have reported being encouraged or forced to drink to excess (sometimes to the point of alcohol poisoning) or sexually humiliated or violated during sorority hazing rituals. So, this isn’t simply a boy problem.)

There’s a larger issue here, and it’s this idea that we have to subjugate, prostrate, ourselves to those in power in order to be accepted. We want to be part of the team, part of the group, part of the community. We want to be welcomed and accepted. And so we accept being “put through our paces.” This is the price of acceptance, we’re told — this is what everyone goes through to get in. A gang is a gang is a gang — and if you want to be in the gang, you have to take the beating. We know what the connections and community can do for us if we are part of a good sorority or fraternity — it can get us our jobs, our very livelihood. Why would we risk that just to call out the hazing that we endured and that we are then forced or encouraged to inflict — or witness being inflicted — on others? Why would we risk our sense of belonging, and our sense of being more or better than those who don’t belong?

So I have these questions. I’ve never been through any hazing rituals myself — my stepfather wouldn’t allow me to pledge either of the coed fraternities I spent time around as an undergrad; I can only imagine that he was, probably rightfully, afraid of what the camaraderie and sense of brotherhood/sisterhood might do to undermine his hold on me. I didn’t participate in any secret societies on campus (I was invited to join one after I graduated, but never went through any of their initiation rituals — I guess I can’t imagine that they would have been violent or humiliating, but why not?)

Why does initiation into a new community have to be synonymous with humiliation? Why do we have to break someone down socially and internally, in order to find them worthy of welcome into our institutions (military, sports, and other various closed societies)? Why do we accept this?

One article states “Given how widespread hazing is, it cannot be eliminated. And nor should it be – so long as it’s all in good fun, it’s not dangerous and the participants are willing. However, it should be carefully monitored and contained, particularly at the high school level.”

My question is why it’s “all in good fun” to humiliate our — well, anyone. Why does it make us feel good? Is it because we have power? In humiliating and violating someone else, are we “taking back” some of the power that was taken from us when we were hazed? Is that part of it? We earned the right to harm someone else after we went through it ourselves. It’s part of the privilege of power–the worst sort of pyramid scheme.

Would we feel less bonded to one another if we were invited to connect differently? If, as a part of joining any new community, we were given the opportunity to participate in something beautiful? I can see you (or maybe not you, but someone reading this over your shoulder) rolling your eyes at my pollyannaish question. But I’m stuck here. Our kids learn they have to suffer violently, but they also learn that they will get to inflict violent suffering. And that is the culture that we live in. Sure, we went through it — didn’t hurt us! Only made us stronger! Now you take it —  and we pass it on to our kids and tell them to toughen up and learn to be a man.

I feel afraid today — about all of this, how deeply ingrained this mentality is in American culture.

And I’m wondering what would happen if we boycotted all of the institutions that harm our children? Or, let’s get more specific so that we don’t have to boycott everything — what if we just held accountable all of the institutions that sexually violated our children. What if we didn’t participate in their programming, what if we held our kids out of their reach until they were made safe? Football, I think we can safely say, would suddenly have no players. Nor baseball. Nor soccer. Nor boy scouts.  Nor the catholic church. Nor some preschools. Nor some elementary schools, secondary schools, colleges. Of course, we’d have to boycott family, too, wouldn’t we? And then where are we? It’s a philosophical quandary, of course, except that it’s real human lives, real children’s bodies, we’re dealing with.

picking up what we put down to save ourselves

It’s quiet in Oakland this morning. Can you hear that? No bird sounds yet, no animal noises — I can’t hear the sounds of the raccoon or cat or squirrel or stellar’s jay that’s digging at my just-planted jonquil bed, but I can hear a surprising number of cars on the freeway for quarter after 4 in the morning.

(Today’s post contains language of sexual violence and psychological manipulation; be easy with you as you read, ok?)

I’ve shifted out of my usual writing space so that I can sit in front of a window with a view of the eclipse. The morning air is crisp after our stretch of surly heat, the sky is clear and the stars are bright, and when I went out to see my sweetheart off to her plane, I looked up and there was the moon, mostly in shadow with a little cusp of bright white curling out on one edge. Oh yes. The eclipse. I missed the blood part, I guess — at this early writing hour, I just get to be witness to the moon’s reemergence. I suppose that’s just right.

I’ll tell you, though, it’s hard to concentrate on writing when I could be watching the earth’s shadow shift across and away from the face of the moon.

Good morning. What sounds are waking up around you this morning?

I’ve had occasion recently to go back to my college transcripts. I’ll be headed east soon for a trip through New England that will include the campus where I was living when I broke contact with my stepfather, when I had to withdraw from school because my parents refused to pay if I was going to make choices that were at odds with my growth — this was their language, his language: as a psychopath with access to the domain of psychotherapeutic terminology, he claimed that any time we made choices for our life that weren’t in line with what he demanded of us, we were making “fear” choices. If I did not choose to allow him to have sex with me, I was making a choice that was unenlightened and small-minded. So there I was, a once-promising student, a smart kid, with no money, and no instructor or administrator or advocate willing to hear what was going on for me and help me navigate this new place of independence. I was too terrified to tell the school what my stepfather had been doing to me, as I had reason to believe that he might make good on his threats of violence against me or the people I cared for — I didn’t even go into therapy for a year or so, out of fear that he might be able to access the therapist’s files and come after me for whatever I said. I withdrew from school, had to take a failing grade in one of my courses because one of my instructors was unwilling to allow me to take an incomplete in order to finish her coursework when I was out of crisis. That quarter my transcript shows an A, a C, and an F.  I left school after the fall of my senior year. It took me two more years to finish my degree.

Any future I’d been imagining for myself was gone. Eclipsed.

Don’t you think, if you were looking at the grades of an otherwise high-achieving student who suddenly was receiving much poorer grades, you might want to check in with that student to find out what was going on? But no one did. Perhaps the administrators tasked with student well-being had messier folks to contend with; after all, to most folks, at least up to that point in my college career, I appeared to have it all together. Maybe I drank too much, but everyone I spent time with did — that was our college culture. Unless I told them, I don’t think most of the folks I was friends with then would have guessed what was going on for me at home — or in hotel rooms or bedrooms when my stepfather came to New England (alone) to visit me at school.

I am grateful for the raised awareness of sexual violence on college campuses these days — and I hope that school administrators are keeping in mind that individual response to sexual violence takes many forms, as does the violence itself. There are students on their campuses dealing with violence not from classmates but from family members or HTHs. How do we help those students while we are also targeting the use of alcohol as an anti-inhibitor and reminding folks of all genders that yes means yes and no means no? That slogan means nothing when you have been taught from early adolescence, childhood or even infancy that nothing, actually, means no.

For the first time, I’ve been mourning the loss of the trajectory I’d been on, the loss of that potential. Yes, it turns out I didn’t actually want to design user interfaces for artificial intelligence data collection systems, and I haven’t ended up using any of the combinatorial maths that I spent so much time with — and yes, I trust that my life as unfolded just as it was meant to (because that’s the way it unfolded. It’s a tautology, sure, but it’s still a philosophy that works for me.)

And yet — that smart girl got derailed, and derailed on purpose.

All over the country — all over the worldunder the still-emerging light of that bright full moon — bright, clever, curious children are being suffocated under the weight of the violence done to them. They are turning themselves inward. They are turning away from what they love, because what they love can be used against them. They are learning to distrust their creative instincts and curiosities. They are learning that there’s no room for intellectual wonder — how can you take the spaciousness necessary to give yourself over to deep curiosity and discovery when so much of your creative genius must go to keeping yourself alive and as safe as possible?

How much potential is lost — stolen — in this way? How much energy is devoted to thwarting the next violation that could be turned to other pursuits — math or engineering, social change, poetry, literature, music, dance, conservation, life?

Recently I’ve been feeling quite jealous of my friends and beloveds who didn’t have to deal with this sort of onslaught, this attack on their potential. I am jealous of those who, apparently unobstructed, got to fly free into the breadth of their lives.

This morning, the man in the just-revealed moon looks like a dragon. Maybe a phoenix. They say that as long as we are breathing, we are free to make a new choice, free to turn our lives in another direction. And today I am grateful to still be alive, to have had the opportunity to course correct my life so very many times. I still, after all these years, want to give that young woman from my past what she deserved — an opportunity to fully devote herself to her intellectual and creative wonder; the chance to prove her mettle and fully embrace her genius (as we all deserve to embrace our own inherent genius); the understanding that she can redirect her psychic energy away from fighting off the intruders or keeping watch for further invasions, that she can set down her armor and her mace and her knives and her wary eyes, and open her mind back up the way she has begun to open up her heart. He convinced her that she was not smart — after all, would a smart girl find herself suddenly standing at a bank of payphones at 21 saying to herself, Now wait a minute — what he’s been doing is incest! after nearly ten years of violence at the hands of her stepfather? Would a smart girl have gone into those rooms with him? Would a smart girl have believed all of his lies and manipulations?

Eventually, way inside, she put down smart. He had claimed the world of smart for himself, and she didn’t want anything to do with it.

It’s taken all these years to walk back through and into the darkness, into the woods, to stand over the overgrown spot where she left smart half-buried under pine needles and leaf mould. She takes it up into her hands and dusts it off, but can she trust swallowing it back into herself again? Can she trust the vulnerability that opens in her when she falls into the place that is more curious than protected?

Can she imagine living the rest of her life without that part of herself? Doesn’t she get to take back everything that he tried to steal from her?

The moon is unveiled again; there’s just a smudge of shadow at her nadir, and she’s slowly sinking into the west, dropping down toward the sea. I am grateful today for all that you have reclaimed, all the gorgeous and complicated parts of yourself that were used against you by abusers and violators. I am grateful for your wisdom and strength, your spaciousness with yourself, and I hold with you those tears for what has been lost. And, always, I’m grateful for your words.

What’s coming up at Writing Ourselves Whole (Fall 2014)

It may not feel like it much these days, but fall has arrived in the Bay Area. The young folks are back to school, and the words you put on hold during the busyness of summer are whispering to you again: It’s time to write.

Give yourself the support, structure, and community that you and your writing deserve; come and join us at one of our many writing groups and workshops.

Here’s what’s coming up around Writing Ourselves Whole:

Write Whole-Survivors Write.
Open to all survivors of trauma

8 Monday evenings beginning October 13, 2014.
Fee: $365 (ask about scholarship/payment plan, if needed)
Meets in private workshop space in Oakland, near Lake Merritt
Gather with other trauma survivors and write in response to exercises chosen to elicit deep-heart writing around such subjects as body image, family/community, sexuality, dreams, love, faith, and more.

Writing the Flood
A monthly writing workshop open to all

Next Flood Write meets Saturday, October 18, 1-4:30pm
Limited to 12. Fee is $50 (with a sliding scale)
Meets in private workshop space in Oakland, near Lake Merritt
Write in response to exercises designed to get those pens moving, and get onto the page the stories that have been too long stuck inside
(And mark your calendars now for the rest of the year: November 15, December 20.)

Writing Ourselves Whole goes to Lit Crawl!
Saturday, October 18, 6-7pm
at the Women’s Building, 3543 18th St., San Francisco, CA
FREE!
Join us on October 18 for Writing Ourselves Whole’s stop on the infamous LitQuake Lit Crawl. The theme of our reading will be 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. Readers include Eanlai Cronin, Manish Vaidya, Renee Garcia, Blyth Barnow, Seeley Quest, and Jen Cross. Please note: This reading will include explicit sexual content.

Dirty Words – Sacramento
A day-long erotic writing group
November 8, 10am-5pm
Offered through AWA Sacramento
Ever read through a sexy short story and thought, “I’d like to do that!” Join this fun and supportive group of writers and dive into your own sexy words! This group is designed to leave you more confident with sexual language, erotic expression, and your own writing practice. In this AWA-model workshop, we’ll spend the day writing joy back into our bodies and our desire. Discover how empowering a creative engagement with sexuality, sensuality, desire, and fantasy can be. Receive immediate and concrete feedback about what’s already working (and hot!) in your writing, and leave with strong new work. Bring your notebooks or laptops and your most open mind.  No previous experience necessary! Fee for this day-long writing group is $100. To register, please contact John Crandall of Crandall Writers at 916-708-9708 or johnalbertcrandall@yahoo.com.
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No previous writing experience necessary! All workshops facilitated by Jen CrossEmail Jen with any questions, or visit our contact page to register!

Your facilitator Jen Cross founded Writing Ourselves Whole in 2003. She facilitates sexuality and sexual trauma survivors writing workshops in Oakland, CA, and across the country. Jen holds an MA in Transformative Language Arts, and her fiction and creative nonfiction have been widely anthologized.

Writing Ourselves Whole believes in the power of transformative writing practice in community to restory individual trauma experience and restore those parts of ourselves we are trained to hide. We believe in the power of story, the joy of writing, and the depth of human creative resilience.

the difficult and beautiful struggle around self care

I’d like to say my usual good morning, good morning, but it’s taken me all day to get to this post. Refinding my way into my writing after a long break can go like this. Bear with me, ok?

As the light shifts and we find ourselves fully into autumn (whether it feels like it or not where you are), I hope this finds you brimming with words and readying to write. I certainly know I am.

This month’s newsletter comes to you with 4-leaf clovers and migrating monarchs – see below!) out of the midwest. I found the gift up there the day before I was to give a presentation at the Power of Words conference about self-care for transformative language artists (that is, anyone who uses language in a healing or transformative way: writers, poets, workshop facilitators, storytellers, songwriters, therapists, teachers, and so on). I needed a little good luck…I had arrived at the conference (at Lake Doniphan, just outside of Kansas City) quite depleted after a month full of family, workshops, and preparations to finally complete our new book, Sex Still Spoken here: the Erotic Reading Circle Anthology. The further I got into the month, the more self-care practices dropped away: I stopped running, ate poorly, spent no time in the garden, and even told myself that I didn’t have time or energy to write in the mornings. Despite the fact that that last is always a flashing neon red flag, announcing loudly that I need to make some changes (I am not much fun to be around when I’m not writing regularly), still I kept going, kept doing more, kept depleting myself further. I began to feel like the bottom of a used cookpot — burnt and scoured, and still I kept on scraping at the remnants, expecting to be able to nourish myself and others on charred tailings rather than taking the time to step back, slow down, and replenish.

Do you have months like this? Years like this, maybe?

Now here I was at a conference of my transformative language arts peers, and I barely had any energy to connect with the beautiful, brilliant folks around me. How could I present a talk/workshop about self-care when I had been doing such a poor job of taking care of myself?

monarch butterflies migrating through a Nebraska gardenAfter taking some time to get quiet with the natural world (thank you, monarchs and cicadas), I walked into my workshop with my whole self — I told the gathered participants exactly where I was coming from, and honored how very difficult it can be to take care of ourselves, even when we are working to help others take care of themselves. I described my own experiences of burnout and how I sometimes had to get clear to rock bottom before I believed I deserved to take care of this instrument that is myself. I described how grateful I felt in 2008 when I discovered Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s Trauma Stewardship book and program — and how called out I was by her assertion that we who called ourselves trauma stewards could not possibly do ethical (not to mention sustainable!) work with others if we were not also taking care of ourselves. That one hit home in a big way for me, and yet I am still struggling, six years later, to believe that I am worth taking care of.

We are so many of us trained, early and often, to take care of everyone else before we take care of ourselves. Those lessons are repeated continuously: There is so much need, so much trauma, so many around us who need help. Who do we think we are to take time out of our social change efforts to “replenish the well” (as Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way)? I don’t know about you, but when I’m not taking care of myself, I get into this mindset that says, “If I just do these last few things for them, then I’ll be able to take some time for me.” The trouble is, there’s no end to what I (tell myself I) need to do for other people. There’s no way to finish that to-do list, and I drive myself into the ground trying to “get it all done.”

There’s no such thing as getting it all done — especially not when we’re talking about trauma and its aftermath.

I have to change the paradigm, and put self-care right up at the top of every day’s tasks. This is difficult work, especially when I’ve already slipped back into my codependent-hero costume (complete with Wonder Woman cape, thank you): I am putting everyone else first! Look at how great I am! Never mind that after not very long I’m going to disappear under a rock and quit responding to email messages and phone calls because I’m so overwhelmed — the pendulum swings over to the selfish-shame side of things.

Have you been on this ride? The Wonder Woman side feels great for a little while, but the crash is kind of a drag.

In A Feminist Ethic of Risk, Sharon Welch reminds her readers that we can’t approach social change work with the sort of individualist mindset that many of us (especially white middle class Americans) are trained into — not only must we work in community and collaboration, we must prepare ourselves for small victories and do our work in such a way that we are building a scaffolding for those who will come after us — who will pick up our work after we have gone. If we expect to get it all done today (To do list: buy dish detergent, get flea medicine for cat, take out trash, end rape culture) even in our lifetimes, we are sure to burn out. We have to slow down, breathe deep, work steady and consistently, and remember that we are not alone in our struggles.

I forget this a lot. As a survivor who was, like so many, intensely isolated — and also as an introvert who needs time to myself to process and replenish — I tend to do a lot of my work alone. I live in a community that is both wildly creative and also frantically busy and consistently overwhelmed; we are all trying to figure out how to do our art, create change in collaboration with others, and also pay our rent. I, like so many cultural workers in the Bay Area, find myself taking on too much, trying to Do It All, before depleting my resources and needing to retreat into a bit of quiet until I feel a tiny trickle of water start to flow into the parched desert of my creative soul. Then I dive back into work again full bore, expecting that trickle to do the work of the sea. Working from a place of overwhelm is like having blinders on — all I can see is the road ahead. I forget why I’m doing what I’m doing. I forget why I loved this work. I stop being able to see the impact of my efforts, and begin to despair – why am I working so hard when nothing ever seems to change? What good is this work, anyway? Am I really making any sort of difference?

I showed up at the conference deeply depleted. Thankfully, The Power of Words conference is a space that values authentic presence, and I was able to show up exactly as I was. I talked a little bit about the need for transformative language arts workers to take care of our good and necessary selves, and then we broke into small groups and folks wrote together (this was our prompt) and held one another’s words. It was a gorgeous group of writers, and I found myself — even from the edge of despair on which I was teetering — grateful all over again for what happens when folks write openly and honestly, then share their words with each other and allow themselves to be received with kindness and generosity.

Then I went to Arby’s and got potato cakes by way of celebration — hey, I was home, and only wanted to eat the things my 10 year old self would have wanted to eat.

Since getting back from the conference, I helped launch a book into the world and celebrated its authors, have two new survivors groups beginning, and am preparing for Writing Ourselves Whole’s inaugural reading at San Francisco’s Lit Crawl.  I am also slowing down, not making plans, leaving hours open for daydreaming and reading. The more space I have, the more the words begin to return — and the more able I feel to sit down with them and let them flow onto the page.

Self-care is a difficult practice for any of us, and trauma survivors have our own challenges. I have to remind myself over and over again of Audre Lorde’s words: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

We deserve to preserve ourselves. We deserve to be in our chosen work for the long haul. We deserve to be well inside our skins. I say it to you in order to remind myself as much as to remind you. Thank you for all the ways you are tender with your psyche, body, and soul. Thank you for your spaciousness with others when they are needing to retreat in order to take care of themselves. And, as ever, thank you for your words.

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.