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learning to listen to different forms of success

MissionFishes-711504Good morning, good morning. The sun outside is bright egg yolk orange, just over the Oakland hills. How is the morning finding you today?

I have been thinking a lot about success and failure these days. I’ve been caught up quite a lot in comparing myself to others who are more successful, according to our American standards: folks who have high-paying jobs, folks who own houses, folks who are able to travel wherever and whenever they want, folks who have money and access and what I assume is a kind of ease. Do you do this to yourself, too?

Here’s what came of this rumination at this week’s Meridian Writers group on Wednesday morning:

She has failed to grow up and become a successful business person. Every month she gets a magazine in the mail. It comes from the alumni association of her undergraduate college. Against anything that’s good for her, every month she brings this magazine into her house, sits down with it, flips it open to look at the faces of alumni who are achieving. Making names for themselves. Successful. Here are the politicians, the scientists, the social entrepreneurs, the designers, the computer programmers, the movie and television producers, the hedge fund managers, the actors. The writers. Every month she scans the list of books published recently by other alumni. she hopes not to see the name of someone she knows. She hopes none of these now-published writes graduated after her. If they are older than she is, she’s a little easier on herself: she still has time. She scans the personal essay section, to which she has once again failed to submit her own piece, the story she’s imagined sending to them for five years. Every month she undertakes this self-flagellation, looking at the faces of former classmates who now head law firms, run major organizations, made millions of dollars selling their ideas to Silicon Valley. She tortures herself with the faces of the just-graduated, the young-and-up-&-coming who already warrant press coverage for their achievements. Every month she reminds herself that she is a failure.

No matter that she runs her own small boutique business that succeeds well enough to allow her to pay her rent most months. No matter that she has a life full of color and laughter, morning sunlight, a cat who curls next to her on the couch and purrs while she writes in her journal. No matter she knows — somewhere inside — that she has enough, so much more than many: a safe home, a full refrigerator, lights and water and heat that turn on when she wants them to. She has a small garden plot in the community garden down the road where she can dig her fingers in soil, where she tends the fat hands of chard, tall cosmos and hollyhocks and borage and lavender and salvia, tends tomato and broccolini and a small thicket of herbs. Never mind the pots of basil and feverfew on her windowsill, the chickadees and house finches and goldfinches that visit the bird feeder she’s hung from the bottlebrush tree just outside the window near her kitchen table (which is also her office, also her desk).

They never tell her own particular kind of success story int he alumni magazine — about the thousands of students who left the college grounds and did not become standouts in their fields, at least not in the headshot-press release- TED talk- thought leader kind of way. Instead, some of those folks went out to craft small and beautiful lives that tendriled through the communities in which they settled, made home and family, or didn’t, figured out how to survive during the days or months or years when getting out of bed took all the energy they had to spare. They grew to know themselves well, if they succeeded at staying alive, and learned to listen to different forms of success: the kind that goes unreported except in poems, in novels, in glances with strangers across the subway on a chilly February morning.

It’s so easy to compare ourselves to others and come up short, negating the beauty and power in our own lives in the process. There’s an image that cycles through the desktop photos I keep on my computer. It reads: Comparison is the thief of joy (attributed to Franklin Roosevelt). I keep it there because I have to constantly step outside the compulsion to compare myself negatively to others — why are they succeeding when I am not? (Meanwhile, I never tried to succeed at what they are doing, which doesn’t stop me from beating myself up anyway for “failing”!)

Yesterday I thought, It makes about as much sense for me to compare myself negatively to those who went out and worked in the corporate sector or got law degrees or became programmers at Apple or Microsoft or Google as it does for me to compare a fish to a dog and then call the fish a failure because it can’t run on land and chase a ball.

Albert Einstein is supposed to have said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” That’s what I mean.

I have had (am having!) an artist’s life. A successful artist’s life — by no one else’s standards but mine.  What an extraordinary thing to be able to say. I may not be as successful yet as I’d like to be as an artist, but I have absolutely succeeded in creating an artist’s life. When given the choice between money and time, I have chosen time — almost always. And so, rather than being caught behind a desk doing someone else’s work, I have been out wandering, watching the world, reading books, talking to cats and birds and city squirrels, putting my feet in the surf on a weekday morning. And I have written in cafes all over Northern New England, Omaha, San Francisco and Oakland. None of that time has been wasted. Not even the many years spent just trying to let it make sense that I was alive and had control over my own life, when something in me had believed my stepfather when he’d told me I’d never get away from him.

When the artist, the writer, finally publishes her book, the one that’s well-received, gets recognized, gets her that interview on Fresh Air, we look back at all the time she spent not making money, all the time she spent writing and paying for groceries with her credit card, and call it not wasted time but time becoming an artist, becoming the writer she was meant to be. Until that happens, though, her life looks a lot like ours (we who are not among the literary elite, or even the well-published): we make decisions others can’t understand. We write instead of going to parties. We go to bed early instead of going out with friends because we want to have those early morning hours for our writing. We write on our lunch breaks instead of networking like our coworkers do, the ones who want to stay with the company, the ones who want to rise in the ranks. We don’t care about the ranks — at least not the ones at the company.

We write because we want eventually to publish and see our names on the spines of those objects that have been beloved to us since before we could speak: the books read to us by parents or sisters or aunts or cousins, the books we took into our own hands as soon as we could. Those not trying to live our sort of life, or too afraid to do so, may not understand us. There are those comparing themselves to us, too, and coming up short in their own eyes, though it’s hard for us (at least for me) to believe that.

It’s easy to get invested in the story of failure. Today I’m working to look through other eyes, to step outside the ring of comparison (where I always get pummeled on the ropes), and remember that, as a fish, I’m doing just fine.


Guest post: Practicing the love for our bodies

Good morning, good morning! It’s a beautiful, quiet February morning here, and I’ve just taken about an hour for reading and quiet and morning pages. How are the words finding you these days?

We have a guest post today from a good friend of Writing Ourselves Whole, Danielle Ragan, personal trainer, health coach, fitness instructor, teacher as well as writer and all-around generous being. She shares with us today her thoughts about body love in the aftermath of trauma, and offers from her practice an exercise that anyone can use to enter into a month of deeper self-acceptance and radical, embodied self love.

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A beggar had been sitting by the side of a road for over thirty years. One day a stranger walked by. “Spare some change?” mumbled the beggar, mechanically holding out his old baseball cap. “I have nothing to give you,” said the stranger. Then he asked: “What’s that you are sitting on?” “Nothing,” replied the beggar. “Just an old box. I have been sitting on it for as long as I can remember.” “Ever looked inside?” asked the stranger. “No,” said the beggar. “What’s the point? There’s nothing in there.” “Have a look inside,” insisted the stranger. The beggar managed to pry open the lid. With astonishment, disbelief, and elation, he saw that the box was filled with gold.

I am that stranger who has nothing to give you and who is telling you to look inside. Not inside any box, as in the parable, but somewhere even closer: inside yourself.

~Eckhart Tolle

Greetings! Who is this random guest blogger that Jen has writing in this week’s post, you may ask? I am but that stranger guiding you to look inside…inside yourself. I may be that stranger for you now, but the beauty about strangers is that all strangers are only companions whom we have not yet met.

My name is Danielle Ragan. And if work were to determine my being, by profession I am a personal trainer, health coach, fitness instructor, teacher, but in my true being I am simply a liver of life!

It is with one of my true passions in health and wellness that I enter into this bog with you today. Health of our bodies is one of those gifts that we do not realize until it is gone. And in survivors of violence and trauma it is often hard to fathom our bodies because they are often the things that produced our greatest pain. We may often feel betrayed by our bodies, ashamed of our bodies, fearful of our bodies.

In this month of Love, I challenge you to ask: “Where is the love for our bodies?”
Despite how our bodies look, despite how we view our bodies at this present moment, our bodies are the birthplace of creativity, love, beauty, and the true healing that we seek.

Having had my body experience the pain of another taking it over, using it as their own, I know what it means to disdain your body, to feel ashamed of your body, to feel afraid of your body. You may be in this mindset today as I have been before, and this is an okay place to be. Acknowledge where you are at this moment.

Previously your body may have done what it needed to in order to survive. You are here now, and now there is something more for your body. Here we will walk together back on that path to our bodies and our desires of health. For in our bodies there is acceptance, growth, whole-hearted love, extreme beauty, and overwhelming power.

As Maya Angelou said, “There is not agony like the untold story inside of you.” While Jen helps you take back the pen and live a life empowered in your story as a creative author, I offer a chance to walk together on the journey to reclaim the internal, tangible form of ourselves; living empowered in our bodies, in health, wellness, beauty and love.

Before we were our stories, before we were what happened to us, before we were what changed us, we were us. We were our divine selves in our bodies.

In this month of Love, let us use each morning to commit to loving our bodies through physical movement. To do this, I invite you to join me in a fun activity, for what good is physical movement if it is not fun!?

For this activity we will each need a deck of cards. Each card’s suit and number will serve as our guides for how we will move our bodies each morning.

On a piece of paper write down each suit and 4 types of movements in which you find enjoyment, in which your body feels alive. Each of the 4 movements should correspond to one suit: hearts, diamonds, clubs, spades. Your movements are up to you. They could be Sun Salutations, jumping jacks, push-ups, walking one block… whatever makes your body feel alive.

After you have written them down put the paper somewhere that you will see this beautiful commitment you are making in loving your body this month. Decorate it! Glitter, colors, jewels, make it something special for yourself.

With this we will have created 28 days of committed beauty for our bodies and offered our divine selves a chance to connect back with our source, our wonder, our power, our creativity in our bodies.

Then, every morning of this month I invite us to find that connection with our bodies as we choose a new card from our deck. The suit will indicate our chosen movement and the number will determine the amount of times we do the movement (Ace=1, Jack=11, Queen=12, King=13). So, if we wrote jumping jacks under the suit Hearts, and we draw a 5 of Hearts, we will perform 5 jumping jacks that morning.

Every morning choose a new card. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath in. Embrace that moment to feel alive. Then begin your movement, whatever your morning draw destined.

In finishing your movement, again take a deep breath and feel the energy you created in your body. Feel your heart beating, feel your breath in and out of your lungs. Feel the beauty you created pulsing through your body. Take 10 deep breaths relishing in this moment.

All of that power, that energy, that sense of accomplishment that we feel, lies within each one of us, just as it did for the beggar. Feel empowered within and carry it without, into our days and into our lives, bettering the world around us, one incredible movement at a time.

I would love the opportunity to connect with you more on this journey with your beautiful body. Connect with me on my blog as I invite you to comment with your “luck of the draw” daily movements. Here we will inspire each other along the way as we make the commitment to love up our bodies this month! Also, feel free to email me at with questions, comments, or to hear of ways to further engage in committing to our bodies on our journey toward true healing.

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Thank you, Danielle, for this beautiful exercise and invitation into a deeper body acceptance and body love! Please do let us know if you try out her practice! A 28-day course of self-appreciation can begin anytime. I’m going to get it started for myself today. Here’s to the good and ongoing work of remembering how it feels to be in our bodies, to love and appreciate our good and tender bodies. Thank you for continuing in this work for your healing today, and thank you for your words.

trusting our creative rhythms

Good morning, good morning. It’s early still on a Monday (late for me, as the sun is well up already!) — how are the words finding you these days? Are you letting them in?

I’ve been writing a lot since the beginning of the year, but I’ve been doing most of it in my notebook, offline. I went on a writing retreat a week or so ago, a much-needed break from the hustle of workshops and the new year’s Let’s Get It Done! energy. Do you get that kind of buzzy exuberance at the beginning of the year? Suddenly, everything I’ve forgone for months or maybe years (maybe even decades) is gonna get done now. It’s a new year! Everything is possible! Let’s make a plan, and then another plan, and then create a new writing schedule, then make a vision board, then another vision board for the other projects, then make a giant to do list of every thing that needs doing for my 9 or 10 Very Important creative projects that all need attention now.

So the beginning of the year is charged and exciting – like a Monday morning on steroids, if you’re like me — another chance to get it right. And then I overdo it with the attempt to schedule my creativity into a rigorous, regimented set of boxes, and the parts of me that need to sing, need to wander, need to breathe without being scheduled to do so, the parts of my creative life that need open space around them in order to blossom begin to leak out the sides of me. I start to cheat on my own systems: the employee undermining the boss. I start to come in “late” to work. I oversleep.These are my forms of creative resistance. Gonna try and put me into a box? Ok, then, I’ll go limp. I get out of sync, creatively-speaking, and begin to get tight and frustrated. What happened to my flow?

So, the weekend retreat was well-timed. An xmas gift from my sweetheart, she knew that this introvert needs time away from everything and everyone every now and again just to immerse in solitude and let the writing bubble up again. I gathered together the projects I wanted to work on — brought my journal (almost full), a novel I was in the middle of, the manuscript for my collection of essays about writing practice for/& trauma survival, and my laptop. I figured I’d finish reading through and marking up the manuscript, and then I’d get started on the edits/rewrites. I was meant to be gone for two and a half-days. I had big plans. The beautiful part about visiting this house — aside from the fact that the house itself is beautiful and rests right across the street from a cow pasture so that I can listen to cows talking to each other all day and feel rather like I’ve gone back home — is that AT&T has no coverage in the area. I allow this to work in my favor; no email, no texts, no checking the web for anything, not even cell service. If I wanted to connect with beloveds, I had to go to the little cafe down in “town” with wifi access, which I did the first night, sitting out front on one of the old ice cream parlor style wire-frame chairs, hunkered over against the wind, texting love notes back home to my sweetheart.

When I got to the our friends’ beautiful little house in West Marin, I unpacked the dog and all of my clothes and the food I’d brought. I changed into comfortable clothes, settled in, pulled out my laptop and discovered that I had forgotten the charger for the computer. Talk about creative resistance. I had about 80% power still on the laptop, which meant I could do a few hours’ work. Maybe.

I had about a minute’s worth of distress about this. Then I pulled out my notebook. Nearly full. This was a much bigger problem, but one more easily remediable without even the need for a car. I threw on my jacket and headed to the little market, fingers crossed that they’d have what I needed. And indeed, there amid the dusty packages of prepared food and expensive wine (this place is like a camp store for the well-heeled West Marin visitor) was a small stationary section, with a couple of blank notebooks– one 70pp single subject, one a 108pp 3 subject 3/4-sized notebook. Both were wildly expensive, but that was the price I paid for forgetting to pack one of the hundred or so single-subject notebooks I gathered up at Target last fall during school supply season (or as I call it, notebook season). Once I had the notebook in hand, I was all set. I headed back to the house, wanting to get all settled in before the rains came, and opened my novel. Before long, I had found my way into a very deep and solid quiet.

I read for most of the first day, writing a little after the novel was finished. I ate small, went for walks with the dog, watched the storm gather through the big front windows. I journaled, wrote fiction, found a rhythm that wasn’t electronically mediated, wasn’t driven by any sense of outside influences or cravings for attention or publishing or anyone else’s accolades. I got back into a much older relationship with writing — the one that was just for me, just for my own healing and discovery, play and practice. Once upon a time I used to spend hours holed up at cafes pouring words into these 3/4-sized notebooks, unfurling myself, figuring out who I was and who I’d been, what I’d been through and who I wanted to be. During my writing retreat, unable to do the work I felt I was “supposed” to do, something in me got shaken loose. I got to revisit that oldest and most sustaining writing practice: words in the notebook, play and discovery, no other aim but writing itself. Just write, just write, just write.

I did use up that computer charge, typing up an essay I’d written in the notebook a couple of weeks before. But then I turned it back off, walked outside with the dog, talked with the cows, and headed out to the beach to commune with the sea.

Thank you for all the ways you allow yourself to connect with  your deepest creative rhythms. Thank you for giving your creative self what it needs, even if what you need to create is different from what others appear to need. Thank you for trusting your creative self — and thank you, always, for your words.

rapists don’t need taming

Good morning good morning. I am achy today after dancing for a couple of hours yesterday morning, and bruised and scraped up after falling flat on my face into the street. I was leaving the Whole Foods in Oakland, relaxed and still joyful and tenderized and sweaty after the dancing, and managed to get my feet caught in a piece of plastic tape used to bundle newspapers or magazines; it hadn’t been cut, and was still a solid circle. I’d just begun crossing at an intersection, and my momentum propelled me forward right down onto the blacktop — I managed to brace my fall with my hand, not my face, and broke nothing but the skin on my arm and a container of tabouleh. After picking up the plastic circle and putting it in the trashcan, I walked home along Lake Merritt with my forearm bleeding and hands resting on my belly. I was so grateful that I hadn’t been more badly hurt. I had some surgical tape at home from the cut to my hand some years ago, and bandaged myself up before my Dive Deep group arrived for our potluck and meeting.

While I was waiting in line at the checkout stand, I scanned covers of the magazines they keep at the registers: Yoga, Vegetarian Times, The Atlantic…something on the cover of The Atlantic caught my eye — at the top right corner, a tiny headline, promoting a story inside about taming the American college male.


“Oh, no,” I said out loud, making noises of consternation. I stopped myself from buying the magazine to read the article. i stopped myself from rewarding this kind of language-tease. Maybe I’ll read the article eventually — I don’t know if I want the aggravation, or the increase in my blood pressure. Better exercise for me to go dancing again, I think.

Is the problem of on-campus rape really an issue of men not being tame? What about rape in the military? What about rape in the home? What about rape everywhere else?

The word tame comes from Latin and Greek words meaning to subdue. Tame means to domesticate, to ‘make less powerful and easier to control’ (according to the dictionary on my computer). The Atlantic is furthering the old messaging that young college-age (and other) men are wildings, simply out of control, not educated or otherwise able to control their urges. That’s why there’s so much rape on college campuses.

What a nice thing for these men, to get a pass like this.

It may not surprise you to read that I don’t think that “wildness” is the problem. Young people who get into college aren’t wild animals. They are highly educated beings, able to concentrate and focus and behave according to social norms when it serves their purposes: they study for exams, they write papers; they go to class and manage not to rape anyone while listening to the lecture; they managed to show up for college interviews looking like civilized human beings, not raping anyone at the restaurant or cafe where the interview was held. These are folks who know how to behave and when. They are the epitome of civilized.

It’s only when they have access, and communal license, that they behave badly and prey on their classmates.

By wild, maybe The Atlantic is meaning to evoke the idea of a predator out in the woods, stalking its prey. Predators know how to act when. They don’t stalk those with more power than they have, or even those of equal status. They don’t stalk their own kind. They hunt animals that are weaker and slower than they are, in order that they might feed.

All this language of animal behavior and the need to domesticate wild beasts hearkens back to the messaging that women used to get routinely — that men simply couldn’t control their sexual urges, and so women had to be the ones to control themselves, to exert control, to say no and mean it, not to get themselves into “bad” situations, not to dress or speak or behave or exist in a way that might incite some man somewhere to violent sexual attack. The language of taming and domestication was behind the prohibition movements of the early 20th century — women wanting to outlaw alcohol in order to help their men be better able to behave (the rationale being that it was the alcohol that caused men to beat or rape women, rather than tacit and overt license from communities, peers, and the law). The messaging remains the same: men can’t be held responsible for controlling themselves — they have needs, urges, don’t you know, and those needs must be attended to.

Beyond this messaging of taming the wild beast (that old staple of women’s romances), I hesitate even around this idea that college-age men need educating about rape and how to avoid it. Does anyone reach the age of 18 not knowing that it’s not ok to force someone else to have sex with  you? What, exactly, do these men need to be educated about? Do they need to know that women are humans too and have feelings and are harmed by their actions? Do they need to learn that their actions have consequences, that life is not a video game, that the damage they do has a real and lasting impact on a real person?

Do most men really enjoy being thought of this way? Do they like being associated with rampaging beasts, with beings that need taming, with out-of-control animals? Maybe something in them does like it — what a privilege, not to be held accountable for your actions, for hundreds and hundreds of years: He was turned on, officer — what was he supposed to do?

Of course, the issue as much about power as it is about sex. It’s as much about (some? can I say some?) men believing, fundamentally, that women (or children) don’t have as much right to bodily agency as they do. It’s about adult men continuing to pass on the message to their sons that rape is their right, that access to other human’s bodies is their right as men, that if you want to be a real man, you better be able to violate, be comfortable with violence, be willing to take.

I don’t have a very nuanced analysis of rape, and I don’t have a lot of patience around it. The issue is pretty clear to me. Don’t have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you. Don’t have sex when you’re drunk. Don’t get someone drunk in order to have sex with them. If someone is drunk and appears to want to have sex with you, wait until they are sober and then ask again. Be willing to have sex sober. Be willing to say what you want, and be willing to hear no as well as yes. Don’t shame those who say yes or those who say no.  Anyone can stop any instance of sex at any time, and though you might be disappointed or even physically hurting, your job is to stop when someone else says stop. Period. If you get mad that that person asked you to stop, don’t have sex with them anymore. Your turn on is not a license for sex. Just because your flesh is engorged with blood doesn’t mean anything about anyone else’s behavior, doesn’t mean you get to have sex with someone just to discharge those feelings, doesn’t mean you have a right to take sex from someone else in order to increase those feelings of pleasure or get to a place of release. Other people’s bodies aren’t there for you to use or inflict yourself upon.  I don’t want to hear that you couldn’t help yourself, or you thought she was coming on to you (even though she was passed out on your frat basement couch and you had to practically drag her up to your bedroom), or that she must have wanted it because she was wearing a low-cut blouse and dancing hard and drinking and made eye contact with you.

I’m glad that other people are doing the slow and patient work of re-educating folks around the issues of rape and sexual violence; I’m afraid I wouldn’t be a lot of use in that classroom, given my impatience. I continue to get tangled up in what feels to me to be a straightforward matter: don’t have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you, or who you can’t be sure is sober enough to consent. I don’t know why I keep falling face first into so much other bullshit, and why I’m so sore all the time, listening to the rationalizations of the rapists and pain of the survivors.

rape culture gets into our dreams

(Some explicit language in today’s post about sexual violence — please take care of you, ok?)

Good morning, good morning. When I went down to get my coffee, the sun was just raising its earliest eyebrows over the hills to the east, and there was trainsong from the west, Amtrak making its way through Jack London Square and the Oakland Embarcadero. I just finally got out of bed after snoozing my alarm for almost two hours — it’s not especially good sleep, those eight minutes in-between alarms, but it leaves me in kind of a liminal space, half-sleeping, half-aware of the bedclothes and room around me, my hand ready to hit the snooze button again, fighting with the part inside that says, Get up get up get up, the voice of Rumi encouraging me: don’t go back to sleep, the breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you — but then sleep calls me back, drawing me back in, increases the gravity around the bed sinking my body deeper into the mattress, and I slip back toward the edges of my dreams. Though, after last night, I wasn’t altogether sure I wanted to go back there.

I wish I could remember more of the dream I was having before my sweetheart had to wake me up to get me to stop that ghostly repetition of No no no no, the sleep voice that reaches out into waking life and sounds otherworldly, even to my own ears. In the dream, I was doing something wonderful and risky, involved in some kind of an adventure, one that involved leaping from great heights. In one part, I was trying to get away from an animal in the water. Is that right? And then I was attached on a wire to an airplane and was being flown, or slung, rather, out to a small platform in the middle of the sea. There was some importance attached to my being able to do this well, and I had to absolutely trust the people who were on the other side of the wire from me, guiding me from above. Relax, they called down to me, or else I heard it inside myself — Relax, Jen. You have to let your body relax. It was nighttime, I had no way to guide or direct myself, and I was being dropped from the sky toward the ocean. In the dream, I closed my eyes and leaned back, stretched out into the air, let my arms fall open, let my body go. I was moving impossibly fast through the air, not terribly far above the water, and I started to smile. I let myself trust the ride, and it was delicious. My body rushed through the air at an impossible speed, and all I could do was feel it.

The handlers above me dropped me gently right onto the rectangular cement platform out in the middle of the water. I was meant to be there only briefly, caught and guided back into the air by men who staffed this particular waystation. The man who caught me was my age, maybe a little older, a tall and balding white guy. I smiled at him as I was brought to rest, and then he pulled me back toward the edge of the platform and then was meant to run with me, to help me pick up speed as I was swung back out over the sea to go off to another platform. But something about the way he was holding me made me uncomfortable, and I started to tense up away from him. I pulled one knee toward my body, which then rested near his crotch, and he took that as a come-on. And all that beautiful relaxation and trust I’d allowed myself to drop into was gone. We were moving fast — running — and suddenly he was digging a free hand into his pants, and I understood that he wanted to masturbate onto my body, fast, so that I would have his semen on me when I lifted back up into the air. I didn’t want him to do this, and started to shake my head, move my body away. No one could see us — the platform was sparsely-staffed, and the other men were elsewhere. They weren’t watching, and this guy over me was bending down so as to hide his actions. I wasn’t in charge of my body — it was still fastened to the airplane above, and this now-masturbating man was the one responsible for guiding me back into the air. He did not get it done before I started shouting. That’s when the Nos began — and that’s when my sweetheart woke me up.

I lay awake for awhile, not wanting to be done with the dream, but wanting to be done with that part of it — I wanted to go back to the part where I was flying, go back to the part where I’d been able to trust the (unknown) people — men — responsible for my well-being. I imagined lifting off the platform and having the other men beat this guy up — but then was frustrated for falling back on that needing-to-be-protected-and-rescued scenario, Maybe I could knee him in the face. Maybe I could redirect the dream so that this part didn’t have to happen at all. Maybe I could just skip to the next platform. Eventually I fell back asleep, and I dropped into a dream in which my beloved friend Kathleen and I were at some student community space at a college, waiting to talk to a representative of the trans community about something — a show? A project? We were with a group of folks who were all wearing amazing shoes. The flying was gone, though.

This morning, I thought — this is what rape culture does. The fear or threat of rape gets into everything. It gets into our skin and hair. It gets into our decisions about what to wear. It gets into how we speak to strangers and those we know well. It gets into how we move through the world, how we take up space, how we reach out or shrink back. It even gets into our dreams. It gets into our dreams.

When we say that rape culture is everywhere, this is what we mean. It even gets into our dreams.

Here was a moment when my dream self had just finally allowed herself to unclench her muscles and drop open, allowed herself to trust that she would be caught and held, that she would be safe. I had comrades. I had community that I could trust with my life. And then in comes the guy who wants to rub his dick on my prone body, and everything clenches up again. I felt sick and angry, lying there half-awake — why does this have to be in my dream life, too? Why can’t I even have a dream in which men who are strangers to me can be trusted to hold my well-being in the highest regard? Why does my flight have to depend on men who want to first wet me down with their seed? What new strata of rape-enculturated thinking do I need to unravel now?

As sad as it is for me to become aware that rape culture has so deeply infused my being, I’m grateful to be faced with these questions at a time that I’m ready to shed even more of these assumptions and indoctrinations. It’s a life-long project, I think, like undoing racist thinking. Maybe we never get to end the work of pulling from our bodies the misconceptions and shoddy beliefs that rape culture smears us with. We deserve to breathe easy without fear of assault. We deserve to be able to relax — alone and in the arms of strangers — without fear of assault. We deserve for our bodies, fully unknotted, to know the love of the air and water and earth, without the fear of assault.

And we deserve to dream without the fear of being assaulted in our very dreamspace. This shouldn’t be an outlandish expectation.

Thank you for all of the “impossible” dreams you allow yourself, including the one about the eventual end to rape culture. Thank you for the space you make for the beautiful dreams of your beloveds. Thank you, always, for your words.

If you resolved to write, join us in 2015!

Did you make some writing-related resolutions for your creative self in 2015? Come and join us at one of our many writing groups and workshops, and bring those intentions into reality. Here’s what’s the winter schedule looks like at Writing Ourselves Whole!

Declaring Our Erotic: Open to all women survivors of sexual trauma
8 Tuesdays, beginning January 12, 2015.
Fee: $375 (scholarship/payment plan available)
Meets in private workshop space in Oakland, near Lake Merritt
Find community around the complexity of desire, and transform your relationship with your creative self through explicit erotic writing.

Meridian Writers: Daytime, general topic writing workshop open to all!
9 Wednesday mornings beginning January 14, 2015.
Fee: $425 (Fees from this workshop help support Writing Ourselves Whole’s workshops for trauma survivors.)
Meets in private workshop space in Oakland, near Lake Merritt
Find your center and write your story with a other writers who are connecting more deeply with their writing practice. At the end of our nine weeks together, you will have a new creative community, and a strong body of original writing.

Dive Deep: An advanced manuscript/project workgroup
Next series begins begins January 2015
Fee: $200/month (multiple-month commitment)
Limited to 6 members per group
Meets in private workshop space in Oakland, near Lake Merritt
Designed for those working on (or committing to) a larger project, such as a novel or memoir. Divers meet three times per month for writing, project check-in/accountability, feedback, coaching and peer support.

Write Whole-Survivors Write. Open to all survivors of trauma
8 Monday evenings beginning April 6, 2015.
Fee: $375 (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
Meets the third Saturday of every month
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
Next Flood Write meets Saturday, January 17. Mark your calendars now for the rest of the winter: February 21, March 21.

Create the space in your summer for the power of your good words! All workshops facilitated by Jen Cross. Email me with any questions, or visit our contact page to register!

how we build our own traditions

Good morning good morning. It’s later than I wanted it to be, but also, I suppose, exactly the right time. The candles are lit, and I’ve got coffee that was magically waiting for me when I went downstairs to make it. I’m still not quite accustomed, I guess, to being with someone who rises earlier than I do.

At 6:30 am it’s still dark outside, but the tree is lit up, and the candles help make small pockets of light in this beautifully-fertile dark time. This is the time of year, right around the winter solstice, when I remember — when I work to remind myself — that all I can ever actually see is right where I am, and the very next step in front of me. For all of my planing and visioning and hoping and waiting, all that’s ever certain is exactly what is, and the possibility of the very next moment. I like the early hours because I can let the dark enfold around me while I release these words, no Klieg lights on them, no inspection, no harsh interrogation. They slip from my fingers through the soft caress of the candlelight and into the quiet morning to be exactly what they are.

Something in me is slowing down. This is a time to rest, to pause, and even to honor what got done this year. I come to the end of the year and check my bank book and call myself a failure. While everyone around me is rushing about to buy their beloveds all of the christmas presents, I’m trying to decide whether I should resurrect the girl I was at 28 and start making candles again to give as gifts. Already, the baking I do every winter season is underway — this year I have it on my list to bake 14 different kinds of treats: red velvet pinwheels, pepparkaker, cinnamon nut brittle, Russian tea cakes, extra spicy double-chocolate cookies, raspberry thumbprints, Meyer lemon shortbread, anise-almond biscotti, multicolor spritz, buckeyes, cardamom nut bars, anise pretzels, kifli, and Hungarian cream cheese cookies with apricot lekvar. We’ll see if I get to them all.

Around the baking, the annual holiday grieving is also upon me. This is meant to be a time of family and celebration and tradition and remembrance, but my most vivid christmas memories from childhood tend to be pretty awful, which impacts how I hold this time of year — or rather, how I can allow it to hold me. In my 20s, I began to recognize the winter solstice as my winter holiday of choice, even as I went home (when that was possible). The oldest winter festivals of the people I am from in eastern and northern Europe centered around the solstice — this honoring of the dark, and welcoming, too, the return of the sun. Solstice, for me, was something deeper than christianity, something deeper than commercialism, something that helped me think about how to tend and trust the needed, quiet dark within myself.

This year I grieve, too, that I have reached this earliest middle age and still I have none of my own holiday traditions or legacies. After she and her son went to pick up a tree for her house, my sweetheart and I unpacked her holiday ornaments so that the three of us could decorate the tree. She told the stories of each one — this one her son made, this one she made, this one was from her mother’s tree, these were from the collection of her beloved friend Franco, this one she and her ex bought when their son was… and so on. I stayed knelt down by the box of ornaments, unwrapping and trying to keep myself from crying until after the decorating was done. I wanted to be right here, in this moment, with them, making new memories that would form the basis for something solid in future years, not grieving what was lost. But I slipped into the grief anyway. Where were my stories? For all of my affinity for Solstice, I have celebrated Christmas every year of my life — and yet, I’ve got no collection of ornaments to bring to this tree, none of my own stories to share. Instead, I enfold myself into someone else’s stories, traditions, family customs. Mine stayed tucked away and lost. Through two marriages, I gathered no history in the form of shapes and colors that get hung on an evergreen tree every late December. How could that be?

But the truth is that I left those stories behind when I left the relationships — I couldn’t bring them forward with me, into a new life, into a new relationship — onto a new tree. If any of those ornaments had come with me from my childhood, the story would have been different — those I would have claimed. But I don’t have those. I am fortunate, I guess, that my parents do. When we go to my father’s house for the holiday next week, we will see the brass angels that my father’s mother had made when my sister and I were born, engraved with our names and the dates of our birth, and we’ll remember. We’ll remember something before. We’ll remember decorating his tree, which only happened before my mother married the man who would sweep us up into his cape and disappear us from the world for awhile. We’ll remember those oldest Christmases that were still fraught but tender and sweet all at the same time.

Slowly, year by year, my sweetheart and I are building our own collection of holiday stories in the form of ornaments, memories we can hang on the tree, those images that act as placeholders for a history we choose to claim publicly and visibly. Building connection and relationship and history can only work like that, can’t it — year by year, minute by minute, standing in the circle of light, looking out at exactly what is, seeing where our feet and hands can go next.

This morning, as I looked over the stacks of tins that hold all the cookies I’ve made so far, something else occurred to me — in this annual cookie-a-thon, I’ve developed my own holiday tradition, something I can carry with me anywhere, and that connects me to the women in my family who shared love through food (butter and sugar, especially). I make my mother’s anise and almond biscotti, my grandma Cross’ peanut brittle, my grandma Sherman’s Russian tea cakes (I can’t actually say whether she made these, but I have strong body memory of eating them at her house, so the association lives in me anyway). I think about the hands of these women in my own hands, I remember their power and grace that existed even when they failed, and I think about how they kept going. For all of her loss and all that I wish she had done differently in her life (and in my own and my sister’s), my mother never gave up, and I am grateful for that.

So today I will listen to more christmas music and weep and bake more cookies and start packing up the gifts I can afford to send: some butter and sugar and flour and history and tradition and hope, darkness and light altogether blended.

Here’s to your heart today, to the stories you carry and the ones you release, the stories you miss and keep searching for. Here’s to the ways you trust your own ability to create tradition that can ground you in connection and community — such risky, necessary, terribly beautiful work. And of course, as always, here’s to your good, good words.

what do I do if I am from them?

(Just a heads up, my loves — I’m talking about racism and torture in today’s post, and there’s some graphic language here. Take care of you, ok?)

Good morning, good morning. It’s still raining outside my windows, though not nearly as hard as it did yesterday. I stayed home yesterday, avoiding the traffic and flooding and falling branches — I’d been feeling guilty about taking care of myself that way, thinking that I’d bailed on plans to visit my sister for no good reason (outside my window in downtown Oakland, things didn’t look so bad — some heavy rain, but isn’t that what’s supposed to happen in Northern California in the winter?), but then I saw photos of a car in standing water up to its roof on Ashby Ave in Berkeley, and I heard that downtown San Francisco had lost power, and I heard about the traffic accidents and snarls all up and down I-880, and I figured, well, maybe it wasn’t a terrible thing that I stayed inside.

Funny how, even after all these years, I second-guess myself after making a decision on behalf of my own well-being when I think someone else might be upset or disappointed by my choice. I have to find evidence to bolster up that decision: just saying, Wow, it looks like it’s going to be really bad out there, I think I’d rather stay home, isn’t enough for that voice inside always telling me that I’m selfish and thoughtless. This struggle around trusting myself is a part of my trauma legacy, part of this aftermath I live in, part of this ongoing work of recovery.

(Not really funny, after all. Just sad. A little more work to do.)

I have been grieving a lot recently, as so many of us are, and thinking about the legacies of trauma and loss. Last night I watched the Australian movie Rabbit-Proof Fence, the story of a fourteen-year-old Aboriginal girl and her two sisters who are stolen from their family and tribe, driven (in a cage) 1200 miles away to a mission run by white settlers, and who subsequently run away and begin to walk the 1200 miles to get back home. If you haven’t watched the movie, I encourage you to do so. I hadn’t seen it since I was living in Maine, when my ex and I rented it and watched it in our little log cabin out in the woods, and I wept and wept and wept. Same thing happened last night as the credits rolled.

I cry partly because this is a story about sisters in trouble, sisters who have to trust each other, sisters who get separated. These are the same tears that rise in me when I watch The Color Purple or (re)read Danzy Senna’s book Caucasia. I think about all the ways my sister and I were able to save, or at least help, each other, and all the very many ways that we couldn’t help each other, how we had to suffer and survive alone, and how difficult that has made our relationship in the aftermath, and how stupid and terrible it is that we had to go through all of that horror in the first place.

But some of those tears last night were tears of grief and shame and sorrow that the people I am from could (and continue) to perpetrate crimes like this on the lives and bodies and families and lands of other peoples.

These days, in America, we are talking about the crimes that majority white police officers commit against and in communities of color. And, now, threaded into this conversation, we have a conversation about the uses of torture. About when and where torture is acceptable. About what forms of torture is acceptable.

This is the kind of cultural conversation we are capable of having in this country: is it ok to kill an unarmed 18-year-old boy for stealing some cigars from a convenience store? is it ok to kill a man for selling cigarettes on a street corner? Is it ok to waterboard someone in order to force them to reveal information they might be holding? What about throwing them against a wall? Or keeping them awake for 7 days, with their hands chained over their heads?

We are able — even expected — to be able to discuss these things calmly, rationally. What kind of dehumanization is required, what kind of profound disconnect from our empathy and human feeling, is required to not be filled with rage and sorrow upon hearing any of these news stories? How armored do we have to be to debate something like the value of torture?

With the addition of this language of “torture report,” I find listening to the news too triggering these days. I shut off the radio. I know about torture. I know about sleep deprivation. I know about brainwashing and terror — my stepfather claimed to have learned the techniques he used from the CIA.

(I just can’t understand how newscasters all over America aren’t breaking into tears every time they sit down to do their jobs. Why aren’t our newscasts filled with sobs, smeared mascara, red-rimmed eyes? How do they keep from wailing in grief and disappointment and horror?)

What’s got me caught this morning is the grief that these are the people I come from: I mean, from white people, white “culture,” white ancestry. I come from people who homesteaded in the midwest (which means they got stolen land and claimed it as their own), from people who kept other people as property, from people who have developed, over thousands of years, the ability to so profoundly  dehumanize other humans that they can treat them like animals (as though even animals were worth treating the way my people have treated other humans).

This horror is a part of my legacy, a part of what’s at my back. As white folks — especially liberal white folks — we like to distance ourselves from what has come before, and from people who actively act out in racist ways. We say, Oh, but I’m not like them! I’m not that kind of white person. I have taken comfort in that way of thinking myself. I’ve thought, Well, yes, white folks enslaved folks from Africa, but I didn’t do that. My mom and dad, they didn’t do that. It’s not our fault.

What do I want to say about this today? Mostly that I am filled with sorrow and grief at having ancestors who did these things, at coming from a people able to develop institutions that have wrought devastation across the world, like the Catholic Church, the Mormon church, the Atlantic slave trade, the Anglican church — that I come from a people who believed that the highest aim of a person’s life ought to be to distance themselves as much as possible from their human body, and yet could treat women’s and children’s bodies, the bodies of folks who looked different from them, as things without value.

I am from the people who could even conceive of, not to mention design and implement, the American Indian Boarding Schools, the Magdalene Laundries, the Salem witch trials, from men with the capacity to perform the cognitively-dissonant gymnastics necessary in order to declare “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” while also owning other human beings as slaves.

Here is where folks often like to jump up and remind a speaker that there were Africans who kept slaves, participated in and profited from the slave trade. Yes, there are folks from other cultures who have done damage to their own and other communities. I’m not talking about those folks right now. I’m talking about the folks I’m from. My people.

We talk about the the intergenerational legacy of trauma. We talk about post-traumatic slave syndrome. I come from the rapists and slave owners, from sociopaths and torturers. In order to undo racism (starting with my own), I have to reckon with that. How do I hold this truth? How do I move with it?

Victor, a participant in a conversation among men of all races captured on film for the extraordinary and powerful movie The Color of Fear by Lee Mun Wah,  at one point reminds the (white) man he’s talking to that in order to become white, folks have to shed their ethnicities — we have to walk away from that which makes us Irish or Hungarian or Italian or Norwegian or French or even English if we want to be white. We have to forget our ancestry. There is no white culture, because there is no such thing as a “white” race (as so many have said so often before me) — instead, we who choose or sublimate ourselves to whiteness have to capitulate to the demand that we not be of a particular ethnic culture. We have to forgo our people’s foods, clothes, ways of speaking, ways of caring for each other, ways of tending the land (and then, of course, feeling that terrible void in the absence of the who and what and where we are from, we steal the culture of others in an attempt to fill ourselves back up again).

And, too, we demand that those we force to submit to our control to give up their culture as well (the Africans and Indigenous peoples forced to relinquish their languages, food, religions).

Some of the work we did in unlearning racism trainings I participated in back in the day invited white folks to acknowledge and name their ethnic ancestries, and share something of that culture with the room: a song, a dance, a recipe, a story. What of ourselves and our humanities have we relinquished in order to call ourselves white?

I don’t have answers today. Today I am grateful for the rain. I am grateful for the capacity to recognize and feel grief, to mourn what has been done in my name, what terror white supremacy has wrought all over the planet. I remember change happens one person, one connection, one generation at a time. I remember that it is my job as a white-skinned person to continue to speak out, recognize and name privileges I am given, to stand back and listen and share and honor the voices in communities of color sharing their reality and sorrow and truth.

And I remember that the child of a rapist is not doomed to become a rapist. We can make different choices from those of our ancestors. We can hold what is true about the path while going about the difficult and necessary work of creating a wholly new future.

who keeps us safe?

I wake up to the light of a tall candle on the altar in the hall. Outside, the rain splatters over everything. If we lived anywhere else, the parking lot next door would be a sheet of ice.

I’ve spent the better part of the last couple of weeks, immersed in a number of writing projects — I wake up and plunge back in, writing and editing both. I had a blog post forming that I wanted to write yesterday, about I’d begun to wake up with ideas, how I’d wake up ready to write, how writing begets more writing. It seemed like a great message, especially on the day after the last day of NaNoWriMo, when folks might need some encouragement to keep on writing every day, keep on with that regular writing practice that they’d established over a month writing that novel.

My sweetheart was up at 4am to head out on a business trip, and I was about to get up after her — as painful as it was going to be after a lazy weekend, I was ready to move back into my own routine. I’d even asked her to turn on the coffee, which almost always assures that I’ll get up, out of a desire not to waste it — no matter that the coffee’s decaf these days, the old habits die hard.

She’d just said goodbye to me and headed downstairs to gather her things together and leave when I heard gunshots from what sounded like just outside the back window. They were so loud they might have been in the house. I froze, terrified, not even wanting to scream lest the shooter hear me and take aim at an upstairs window. Was someone trying to break into the house? Had someone targeted her? I froze in the bed, listening for any other sound, but as is so often the case after hearing gunshots in Oakland, the only sound after the shots was silence. No screams, no tires, nothing.

My sweetheart ran back up the stairs a moment or two after the shots, and I clung to her like a barnacle, I held her as tight as I’ve ever held anything. I was terrified to let her leave. There have been armed break-ins in the neighborhood. What if someone had been interrupted in a the middle of a burglary and was now escaping, fearful of being seen or caught? What if a neighbor had just shot up their family and might turn the weapon on someone they thought might be able to identify them, any witnesses? Maybe my stepfather had finally escaped from prison — my mind raced to every terrible scenario.

We called the police, and learned that many other neighbors had also called to report shots fired. And then we sat still, listening. But Oakland had gone silent.

After she left for the airport, I sat in the dark. I watched the police cruiser silently drive up and down the block, looking for whatever they were looking for. All of the neighbor’s houses were silent. We all stayed inside and kept our blinds down. It turns out the shots, or the noises, were heard from blocks away. Underneath my terror,  I kept hearing those gunshots, and I thought about my relationship with the police, especially given our current national conversation about police violence, brutality, harassment, unfair targeting, and profiling. Yesterday morning, in spite of everything I know to be true, I felt a margin of safety knowing that the police were there. Why? Did my neighbors? Who were the other neighbors who had reported the shooting to the police?

I was awake after my sweetheart left, but I couldn’t write. I could barely read. I stayed away from the windows, like my ex had hollered at me to do after the first time we heard gunshots not long after we’d moved into our first place together in West Oakland. I’d gone immediately to the window to see if I figure out what was going on. Turn off the lights! he said. And get down! It was the first time I’d heard what I was certain were gunshots in real life. Living on McAllister in San Francisco, near the Panhandle, I’d sometimes thought I heard what sounded like they could have been gunshots, blocks and blocks away, but I was never sure.  What we heard that night on Myrtle Street in West Oakland were something else. I don’t remember whether anyone died that night. Later that year, there was a week when we heard gunshots every night, several nights in a row, and on the last of these nights, someone was killed in the street a half a block from our apartment. The next day, we started looking for someplace else to live. Someplace safer. Where was safer?

Yesterday, after my sweetheart left, I sat alone in the dark — the puppy had abandoned me to go curl up on her chair in the living room, though she’d growled at the sound of the gunshots, as though an intruder or something threatening were just outside the bedroom door. Everything in me was alive with panic and terror. I imagined awful scenarios about what had just happened. And I thought about friends and beloveds and and other folks elsewhere in the city who live with this kind of fear and violence every day. I couldn’t wait for the sun to come up — so odd for me, who usually longs for more darkness in which to write, but yesterday morning, I wanted the light. No matter that I know how many terrible things happen in the daylight. There were just too many secrets hiding around in the early morning darkness, and I wanted the sun to take away their possibility.

I never did write yesterday. I fell asleep again, the sort of sleep that happens when I’m overwhelmed. I curled up under the covers, freezing, and hid from the guns and the terror outside the windows. When I woke up, the sun had risen. I looked out into the backyard, and saw everything as it should be — no bodies were lying there. Maybe I should cut back on my Law and Order reruns. I checked Oakland news, Twitter, but there was nothing about shots fired in our neighborhood, nothing, which is usually the case after I hear gunshots. Just silence. The violence probably not actually random, but it feels that way to this listener, who has no context for these specific acts, and is left just to imagine the worst. What else is there to imagine when gunshots are involved? Maybe someone was shooting their rapist, their abuser, their pimp? Maybe some good was opening up in the world in that silence that followed those impossibly loud shots. Yesterday, that didn’t once occur to me. I crept around all morning, still terrified, peeking through the fence into other yards, not wanting anyone to catch me looking. This is the behavior of someone who has learned to navigate around someone violent. I tried to work, couldn’t, and ended up watching Serenity on cable — not a non-violent film by any means, but I got to see my friend Yuri who was an extra in the film, and there’s humor, and the good guys win — even after all the vast amounts of irreparable damage by the bad guys.

Yesterday was the first time, in all the years I’d lived in Oakland, that I called the police after hearing gunshots.  It has often seemed like calling the police would do no good, and maybe even create more harm. Even in making this call, I was reminded of the messiness of individual witness accounts of crimes — I have a clear memory of three gunshots, while my sweetheart reported four. We both heard a shot, then a pause, and then more — two more for me, three more for her. This time, at least we could say for sure where we thought the shots were coming from.

Yet, yesterday, I wanted someone to put themselves in harm’s way. Damnit, I wanted someone to go find out what happened. That’s what the police do. At least, that’s what I was taught that they do. I believed for years that police put people before property, protected everyone the same, got into the work because they wanted to serve their communities. And then I had a stepfather who made us terrified of going to the authorities because he said he had an in with the government, was friends with folks down at the courthouse. I worked with victims of domestic violence whose husbands or boyfriends were cops or had friends who were cops, and so could track their victim’s movements and could close off all avenues of protection to her. I watched four cops beat Rodney King, and I watched a jury let those cops walk. I learned about police who covered up child abuse, pedophile rings, and other terrible crimes against women and children and men. I listened to those in my communities who described being targeted by police, harassed in their cars, targeted unfairly. I was terrified, living in West Oakland, that my ex would be mistaken for someone else and picked up or shot — just for being a brown-skinned guy in the wrong place at the wrong time — because it seemed that brown-skinned guys in America were often in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I stopped trusting the police so much. I understood that many situations would be made worse by bringing the police in — not just in Oakland, but all across the country. I do not always feel safer to have a cop car pass me, because even though I know that I am not an historic target of their violence, folks who look like me have, as Minne Bruce Pratt taught me, been used as a justification for the violence of historically white-supremecist systems of power.

Yesterday, I was grateful the police were there, and responsive, ostensibly trying and make me and my loves and my community safer, trying to bring someone doing harm to justice — and you can ask yourself how I can believe that, even after all these years watching the criminal justice system fail victims of violence. You can ask me how I can believe that knowing that the cops are looking for whatever they can find during those scouting trips up and down the block. You can ask me how I can believe this knowing they might stop someone completely unrelated to the shooting, even the teenage son of the mom across the street, a young brown-skinned man who has almost certainly already been the victim of police harassment, or lives in fear of it, and in fear of the aftermath.

When we live in communities of thousands and thousands of people, don’t we need those who will sometimes put themselves in between us and violence? True, those people aren’t always cops — they’re often not cops. They’re family members, bystanders, neighbors, friends.  In the best case scenario, maybe a once-upon-a-someday situation, the neighborhood is working together — we call one another first. It’s not that we don’t know our neighbors around my sweetheart’s place — it’s that when those gunshots went off, I wasn’t at all sure that it wasn’t one of those neighbors doing the shooting, and I was terrified of getting shot if I interrupted them, or exposed them. Maybe all the violence I’ve been exposed to — in my stepfather’s house, in the lives of the women I’ve worked with since the 90s, in the tv I choose to consume — has done its work, and terrified me away from being able to trust my neighbors, trust the people I live with and around. An isolated people are a more easily controlled people, of course, and when we are more afraid of our neighbors than the “authorities,” we do what the authorities want.

The truth is, I know that police can’t keep me from being harmed, they can’t keep me safe. Just because a cop is around doesn’t mean I let my guard down. But police act as deterrent, they can intervene during an assault or violation, and they can investigate in the aftermath of a crime. I want more from our police departments than racial profiling and harassment and stop-and-frisk and a desire to protect property before people — like so very many people do. I want a police department that protects and serves the people. I want everyone to feel safer when they see a police car, not more at risk.I want a police department that comports themselves in line with their own ideals (just as I want a us government that does the same). I want police officers willing to unlearn the racism they were raised with in this country, so that they are never able to look at a human being, especially someone they are meant to “protect and serve” and say, “it looks like a demon.” I want everyone in my community not to feel conflicted about whether or not to call the police when we are harmed or threatened or violated. I want the police to be our allies.

I am thinking, too, that most victims of gun violence know the person who is shooting at them. The handgun my stepfather kept under his bed in a case (loaded or not, I don’t know) was never, to my knowledge, pulled out to protect the family, but at least once that I was present for was used to shame, terrify, and threaten us. Is there really a need for us to have as many guns as we have in the communities in this country? Are we using that weaponry to create change in the government, or are we treating one another like entities in a video game? But that is a topic for another blog post.

By the end of the day yesterday, my adrenaline was back to normal, and I was functional again. I still can hear those gunshots, though, and when I remember them, I feel the terror in my belly and my shoulders seize up again. I am sending whatever good thoughts I can today to those who live with the fear of gun violence, and to those who absolutely know they can’t turn to the police. We have to be able to turn to each other in order to hold our communities in greater safety and reverence. I am sending whatever good thoughts I can to whoever was involved in that shooting yesterday. And I am sending good thoughts to you.

Be easy with yourselves today, and say hello to your neighbors. I will do the same. Maybe I will even say hello to a police officer. And I’ll keep writing. You do, too, please, ok? Ok.



The birds are already awake this morning before I get to the keyboard. I had a whole plan for last night — celebration at the final meeting of this fall’s Fearless Words group, hustle home, and head out to Brothers & Sisters to dance hard enough to find my gratitude, to sweat out the toxins, to touch and grab hold of my joy. But when I made it home I was just too tired to go back out into the world; several nights of not enough sleep finally caught up with me. And how could I drive through or around the protests in downtown Oakland in order to go dancing of all things. It felt like crossing a picket line. So instead I obsessively updated my twitter feed, trying to follow what was happening, and ended up crashing on the couch. Not exactly the celebratory evening I’d had in mind, but this 42 year old body doesn’t rally the way it did when I was 22, even though I don’t like dancing any less now — it’s still one of the very small handful of healing practices that have kept me going.

Today I am thinking about the complexity of gratitude. All over America, we’re supposed to be grateful today — we have a national holiday set aside to be thankful for all that we have. It’s meant to be a time for gathering with family, connecting with our beloveds — no one is supposed to be alone on family (even if they’d prefer to be). Meanwhile, we are surrounded by advertisements for so-called Black Friday sales, enticing us into believing that we do not have enough, that we need to buy more, proving the lie of this day of gratitude practice, at least culturally. On this day when we’re supposed to be jubilantly grateful for home and hearth, kith and kin, we have a nation rising up in grief and rage. Many, many people will not be safe today with the people who are supposed to be their safest havens — many of us will grieve the families we ought to have had, the safe hands and hearts we ought to have been surrounded by. This is the beginning of the most complicated time of the year for so many of us.

There’s a poem I like to hand out every November — if you’re in a workshop with me, you’ve probably seen it. It’s W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks,” written in 1927, and it goes like this:

-W.S. Merwin

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
looking up from tables we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

This is one of my favorite poems, one I would like to commit to memory someday. I find it to be outrageously hopeful, naming the possibilities and claiming of gratitude even at our most difficult times, even when gratitude seems wildly ridiculous, even laughably hopeless. How can we be grateful when our country is dropping bombs on people around the world? How can we be grateful when we know somewhere in our own neighborhoods a child is being harmed right now? How can we be grateful when our friends our sick, our communities are hungry, our hearts are aching, our own bodies suffer?

with nobody listening we are saying thank you

I read this poem and I think about resilience. I think about the times I sat with my stepfather while he had his hands on me and I made it through his violence. I think about getting out from under his hands when they were on my neck or between my legs. I think about the moments I had alone — walking my dog, doing homework, riding the bus home from school — when I saw something that brought me joy. Maybe it was a flock of pigeons diving and pooling in the skies over Omaha. Maybe it was my dog bouncing after a squirrel that she had no hope of catching. Maybe it was figuring out the answer to an especially difficult calculus or physics problem. And yet, what right did I have to feel joy? How could I possibly have had the capacity to feel joy? What is it in us that allows us to smile at all when we know we are headed right back into the fire?

For that skill — the wonder of our human ability to continue to allow ourselves pleasure when we know what great pain feels like, when we will be mocked or harassed or harmed if someone catches us grinning to ourselves, for exactly that measure of resistance and resilience — today I say thank you.

I love that the first line of the poem is a command, a harkening: Listen — I hear the poet, the voice of the piece, calling us to hear what’s happening underneath the destruction all around us, these quiet, whispered, continual thank yous. We are not alone in this complicated place of grief and gratitude. Listen: there are others who are saying thank you anyway, who are smiling anyway, who are dancing anyway, even as the thefts and the beatings and the losses go on and on and on.

Today I am grateful for the resilience of the women I wrote with for nine weeks in Fearless Words, women risking everything to reach out to one another, women risking ridicule and shame by offering their true voices and stories to one another, women who found a new community of beloveds. It’s a devastating thing, this being grateful for a community of others who have been hurt like you’ve been hurt — it’s not that we want anyone else to have to have gone through what we went through, raped by someone who was supposed to be a friend, or sexually violated by a parent, or the friend of a parent, or a cousin or — we don’t want anyone else to know what this pain is like. And yet, we also do not want to be alone with this pain anymore. We are tired of our loved ones treating us like we’re crazy. We are tired of feeling crazy. So we are grateful to find ourselves in a room with others who get us from the inside out because they have been there, too: we go on saying thank you thank you

Today I am grateful for you and for your words, for the exact struggle of your life, for the fact that you take on that struggle in order to laugh and breathe and weep and make art and hug those you love and make a safer place for someone or something else, I am grateful for the days you walk through the fire and for the days you are immolated by pain and then rise from the ashes. I am grateful that you give yourself time to rest, time to be silly, time to garden or dance or play World of Warcraft (is that even around anymore?) or solitaire or watch endless episodes of True Blood. I am grateful for how you perceive the world: you are the only one who sees things like you do, and I love hearing from you exactly what you see and hear and feel and smell and taste and sense otherwise, with the knowing that lives deep in your liver and gut and heart. I am grateful that you give yourself the possibility of deep desire, that you have worked so hard to reclaim your sex, that you are working hard still.

in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

Today I am in grief and I am grateful anyway. I want better for us and for our children and I am grateful anyway. I am grateful we continue fighting. I am grateful we sometimes give up. I am grateful we resist. I am grateful we are not alone. I am grateful we are no longer alone.

Be easy with yourself today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, too, if you can. Thank you.