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radical self acceptance means getting to change our minds

A couple of days ago, I officially accepted a place in the SF State MFA program. As a student. This winter I sent out applications to Mills, SF State, and the Stegner Fellowship program, hoping that, one way or another, I’d be able to spend the next couple of years truly focused on writing. The folks at Stegner weren’t interested, but Mills and SF State were. I have spent the last month or so trying to decide which would be the best place for me to spend the next two or three years; what a lucky thing to get to make such a difficult choice.

For many years, I was determined never to go to school for an MFA. Many of the writers I loved and admired — Anne Lamott, Dorothy Allison, Alice Walker, Pat Califia, Leslie Feinberg — had not received MFAs. They just wrote, and shared their work, and then wrote more. Why did I need to go to school for a piece of paper that would tell me I had the right to write? Why did I need to sit in a room with folks who would tear my work up just to please the instructor? Why would I set my tender, still-budding, creative vision under the knife of harried creative writing teachers, who were only teaching in order to make enough money in order to buy themselves a little more time to write, and didn’t want to be teaching anyway, and who wouldn’t be able to help me develop my work the way I wanted to because all they’d see was how different my writing was from The Canon and, thus, what a failure I was as a writer.

Plus, I applied to an MFA program in, what, ’99? 200o? And didn’t get in. The professor from Goddard’s MFA program thought my poetry was too “young.” So there was that, too.

Call it sour grapes, what came after. MFA? I don’t need no stinking MFA.

But there was another thing, too: MFA? No one wants to give me an MFA. I’m not a real writer. Who am I to think of myself as a writer that way?

•§•

Forty-nine days ago, I stood in the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and stared at the pill in my hand. What did it mean that I was about to do this? I promptly fumbled the pill and dropped it down the drain.

By the time I decided to take the step I was about to take, I’d tried about everything else I could think of (consciously and unconsciously) to deal with my depression. I’d gone to therapy (lots and lots and lots of therapy), I’d begun to exercise more, I’d changed my diet, I’d even tried to self-medicate with various herbs and supplements (according to lists offered on blog posts and herbalists’ websites). And I wrote and wrote, of course. I’d also self-medicated in plenty of other ways: eating so much that all I could feel was fullness and shame (rather than despair), watching television to numb my spinning brain, and, of course, there are all the years I gave to alcohol (which, as a depressant, isn’t actually the best antidote to chronic depression — but, being drunk, it was hard for me to logic that one out.)

But I didn’t take drugs. I didn’t want to take drugs. (Never mind, as my sister reminded me, that alcohol is a drug, and food can act like a drug, and television… never mind all that.) Drugs weren’t natural, and anyway, why would I want to medicate my depression away? Why would I want to pretend like I wasn’t depressed? I had good reason to be depressed, for christsake, given all I’d been through at the hands of my stepfather for my entire adolescence, given the fact that I was a queer woman living in America, given the facts of misogyny, homophobia, the pervasiveness of violence against women and children, and the hostility and suspicion often cast toward those who were willing to come forward with their lived experiences of abuse. Who wouldn’t be depressed, given these and other realities of this so-called civilized society. I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t depressed, actually. I didn’t want to be numbed to my feelings by psychopharmaceuticals. (I would, instead, numb with other things.)

And I didn’t want to be a part of a system that wanted to individualize the problem of depression and other psychological responses to living in rape/trauma culture — we didn’t fucking need drugs, we needed adults to stop raping children; we needed a massive cultural shift. If so many kids weren’t being raped, they wouldn’t grow up to need Prozac in order to be able to present as a functional part of capitalist society, in order to act like everything was ok. Everything wasn’t ok.

I’ve been wrangling with a well-earned, post-trauma depression since the early 90s, and there’s a history of depression on both sides of my family as well. I lived with my depression, getting to know its  contours and bearings, its triggers and nuances. I found a fairly decent way to coexist with it, and function. I wrote about sorrow and loss and shame. I wrote about living in the aftermath of trauma, that depression was part and parcel of my reality. I taught friends and beloveds to understand that there would be days I simply couldn’t be available to them, days I would be sad, days I would not be able to be touched. Those were my inside days, I called them — when I was all the way inside myself. They wouldn’t last forever. That was a blessing of recovery, to get to the place where I knew that a wave of depression wouldn’t last forever. I would come back out of it, and be a different self again. But all of these parts were myself. My depression was part of what made me me.

And then, a few years ago, my hormones began to shift. Maybe it’s perimenopause: right around the time I was bleeding, and maybe for a few days after, I felt fine, but then my mood would begin to sink — often, for at least two weeks out of every month, I was trying to function while in a state of total despair. Everything I wanted to do — prep for a workshop, write a blog post or even a journal entry, have coffee with a friend, take the dog for a walk — required all the energy I had, and then required a rebound period, time to recuperate, recharge. I had to drag myself through most of my life. Writing stopped helping the way it once had. I had one low plunge that left me feeling suicidal — even though I knew, intellectually, what was going on. I knew this was my hormones talking. I knew I would feel better (at least somewhat) once I bled. But that didn’t help ameliorate the despair. Instead I thought, Is this how my life is going to be from now on? Am I going to spend half of it just trying to recover from the other half spent feeling like I’m crawling through a cave of misery and shame? Do I have to live like this?

Depression isn’t just anger turned inward. Depression isn’t an attitude problem. Depression isn’t an inability or unwillingness to see the good side of things, to engage in more positive thinking. Depression isn’t simply sadness. Depression is the result of a chemical imbalance in the body.

Someone said to me, If you had a broken leg, wouldn’t you go get a cast on it until it healed? Taking anti-depressants is like that, they said.

But I was stubborn. I had made it all these years. Was I really going to give in to Big Pharma now?

(And then there was the little matter of the drugs’ side effects, not the least of which was the trouble folks had sexually once they started taking SSRIs. I had enough trouble with my sex — did I really want to make sex more difficult?)

Still, the despair was making it difficult for me to feel much joy or positivity at all. The rebound periods weren’t that much higher than the lows, and the lows were getting lower. I had those days of sitting on the couch, watching endless repeats of crime dramas, weeping at how I was wasting my life, comparing myself to the (apparently) non-depressed and functional people around me who could just get up and go to work and spend time with friends and spend time with family and still have energy left over. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just power myself through this anymore?

I couldn’t power through it because I was depressed.

Finally, at an appointment I’d made for completely different reasons, I talked to a new nurse-practitioner about my depression. But I don’t want to go on anti-depressants, I said. I talked about wanting to see an nutritionist, go to an herbalist, try acupuncture. She asked me about the extent of my depression, and I heard myself describe how impacted I was by this aspect of my psychological and physiological makeup, about my family and abuse history. She wondered if I might not be dealing with pre-menstural dysphoric disorder (or PMDD — in other words, really, really, really bad PMS). She talked about the way depression works in the brain, and reminded me that if I went on anti-depressants, I wouldn’t have to be on them forever. I could try them out and see how they worked — while also doing these other things I wanted to try. Something in me shift, or broke, or gave up, or raised its hand and said, Please. We need some help.

I said I’d talk to my therapist. And I did. And later that day, I called back, and my nurse-practitioner wrote me prescription for a low dose of Wellbutrin (the one anti-depression without negative sexual side effects, as it turns out), which is often prescribed for PMDD.

On a Friday morning, 49 days ago, after dropping my first pill down the drain (talk about ambivalence), I went into the bedroom and swallowed this medicine.

•§•

Over the last decade (or so), I’ve eaten a lot of crow. As someone who spent her twenties in a lot of judgement of others decisions and lives, in righteous indignation and certainty that I knew the Right Way to do things, life has knocked me down an awful lot. Righteous indignation has a lot of power in it, and a lot of strength. It makes sense to me that my twenty-something self, once released from my stepfather’s controlling and viciously libertine worldview, would need to stand up and state what I believed with no room for anyone to question or challenge me, with no room for complexity. I took hold of a viewpoint and stubbornly defended it: gay was not just good but preferable to straight, butch was good/femme was bad, MFA candidates were sellouts, folks who took antidepressants were weak, people who charged money for healing work were suspect, and many, many more. I honestly believed I knew what was right and what was wrong– for myself, and for most folks, really.

Then my first marriage broke up and I began coming out as femme and trying to run a business, and ran smack into the backside of my stubborn, judgmental self. Crow, crow, crow.

Strong judgement is a safe place to live, especially when living with as much anxiety as I do. If I held a position with absolute certainly, I didn’t have to worry about it. I could have a place of clarity amid all the panic and terror I swam through every day.

But absolutes aren’t sustainable, at least in my experience (notice how I can’t even make that statement as an absolute!) — they’re like towers made of shale, from which I couldn’t descend without feeling like I’d failed. My judgments trapped and isolated me.

Slowly, through my 30s, I had nearly all of those towers of certainy crushed beneath me, and I sunk into the complicated morass of Real Life, which is messy and imperfect and contradictory. I mourned my capitulation, struggled through shame and grief. Mostly shame. And I kept writing, slowly working my way into an understanding that having strong views wasn’t in and of itself a bad thing — but being unwilling to question those views (just as my stepfather had disallowed any questioning of any of his pronouncements) was harming me, and harming my relationships.

•§•

I noticed an immediate impact from the anti-depressant. There was a day in that first week on the medicine that I had a writing group, then a phone call with a friend/colleague, then a coffee date with someone, and after that, I still had energy left over to write and connect with my beloved. I was astonished. Before the medicine, just one of those things in any given day would have knocked me out. I thought, Is this how normal people experience their lives? Do non-depressed people always have energy like this?

Feelings didn’t go away. I didn’t suddenly turn into happy happy joy joy just because I was on an anti-depressant. That first weekend on the medicine, I felt as though a fat clot of heavy cloud had been pulled off of me — and underneath that weight had been my joy, my sadness, my anger, my fear, all those feelings that had been pushed aside to make way for the demands of despair. I could actually feel things again. Oh.

(I then promptly proceeded to over-schedule my life, given my sudden increase in energy — if I’ve got it, I better give it away! — apparently having to learn the lesson again, through exhaustion, that the anti-depressants aren’t magic beans. They didn’t make me an extrovert; I still need to balance time with others and time to work and wander alone.)

And the PMDD has faded, at least these first months. We’ll see what happens over time. I still get premenstrual (thank goodness– I love that crabby PMS girl!), but the trough of despair isn’t there for now.

I decided to apply to graduate school for creative writing because I wanted, finally, to be able to fully apprentice myself to my craft, something I was never able to do as a student. I have studied writing alone, I have participated in writing groups, I have learned about writing through writing (and reading). I am profoundly grateful that I wasn’t accepted to that MFA program 15 or so years ago. I needed to get to another place in my writing self before I set my work into the hands of others. I needed to learn what teacher could mean, and what I was looking for. I needed to learn to trust my own processes, how to accept the complexities of my own work, and those of readers and respondents. I don’t believe that having an MFA makes me a writer. I am already a writer. The MFA program will introduce me to new aspects of my writing self, offer mentorship and challenge that I may finally be ready for.

I still have plenty of things I’m righteous and certain about — not the least of which being that I’m certain that those convictions will also get complicated if I get to live long enough. The longer I live, the messier everything gets — or rather, the more I’m able to be aware of and sit with the complexities and layers in everything. I am not perfect. We don’t have to be perfect. We get to be ourselves: contrary and obstinate, laughing at ourselves if we’re lucky, as we choke down one more thing we used to be so certain of.

singed: 21 things I learned at my first AWP conference

photo of public art installation of sheet music painted on the side of a buildingGood morning. Can you hear me still catching my breath here?

I am just back from my first AWP conference. Have you heard of this thing? It’s the annual gathering of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, founded in 1967 to support creative writers working in newly established creative writing programs, and which now supports hundreds of thousands of writers/writing instructors and hundreds of creative writing programs throughout North America.

Perhaps needless to say, the attendance at the conference was enormous — a bit (just a bit) overwhelming for this introvert. But I am also so glad that I went, and quite grateful to Autumn Stevens, who invited me to participate in the panel she put together and moderated, “Words for the Wounded: Helping Special Populations Heal Through Writing.” This was my first writing/writers conference since the last OutWrite I attended since, what, 1998? 1999? In the intervening years, I’ve grown no less delighted and intimidated at the thought of gathering with so many Real Writers.

What are some things I learned at my first AWP in Minneapolis? Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts:

1. it’s a good idea to have a place to retreat to. (I ended up staying in a motel about a half-hour away by light rail, and I had to walk a ways to get to the light-rail station, which meant I had no choice but to exercise, also a needed thing when dealing with so much stimulation.)

2. it is absolutely impossible to do everything you’ll want to. (There were well over 500 panels offered during the three days of official conference programming; and then there were many, many, many offsite readings during the evenings.)

3. there is a creative community for your work, no matter how weird or experimental or “out-there” you think you are. (More about this later)

4. it’s ok to still be a fangirl, no matter how old you are. (Back in the 90’s, at OutWrite, I used to get weal-kneed and tongue-tied when catching a glimpse of favorite writers like Kate Bornstein and Patrick Califia; this time around, I got to experience the same thing when asking Christian McEwen to sign my copy of World Enough and Time, and, too, when I got to be in the same room with Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Chronology of Water, a book that kept one of my Dive Deep cohorts in paroxysms of deeply-embodied creative hunger for months.)

5. it’s good to stretch in the mornings, so as to be better able to duck and weave around the ego and posing (More on this in a future post — suffice to say, if you gather together enough folks struggling with the idea of being a Real Writer, no matter how much they’ve published, you’re gonna get some attitude and self-importance.)

6. you have to eat more than a pretzel for lunch. (Enough said.)

7. you have to get more than three hours of sleep. (Ditto.)

8. it’s a good idea to look through the program before you get to the conference, and mark out what panels/readings you think you might want to go to — and you should look again once you’re at the conference, so that you can let yourself be called to what you really need to attend. (if I hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have gone to the Queer Lyricism panel, which at first sounded to me — who’d never heard of the lyric essay– like it would consist of queer writers waxing rhapsodic about the Romantic poets, reciting Keats, Shelley, Byron and Rossetti from memory, but which ended up being the most personally meaningful panel I attended all weekend, as it provided a name and a community (lyric essay–who knew?) for the sorts of fragmented, hybrid, non-narrative, not-even-a-little-bit-traditional essay things I write that I have been calling weird and experimental and for which I assumed there was practically no market whatsoever. Wrong, that idea, it turns out.)

9. if you are a teacher or facilitator of writing groups, it’s ok to let yourself be a writer at this place, and choose to attend the panel that serves you as a writer even when there’s another panel offered in the exact same timeslot that would perfectly serve where you are right now as a teacher. (See above.)

10. it’s good to introduce yourself to your writer heroes here. it’s good to allow yourself to develop new writer heroes here. It’s good to thank the panelists and adore their work and ask where you can find more of it, and connect with them on social media and buy their shit.

11. it’s good to follow your desire even (especially?) it means you attend the panels that aren’t packed with the big name writers. it’s good to let yourself be broken into by a new-to-you poet. It’s ok to miss the panels with the big name writers, even if everyone is tweeting about how amazing they are. You will be among the fortunate folks tweeting about the words of those writers about to become big names.

12. it’s good to remember why you used to love to gather with writers, before everyone got strung up in the panic about recognition and reading fees and competing for the same gigs and the same fellowships and the same feature slots at the same readings and how we’re supposed to pay all our bills while trying to make a living doing this thing that we adore and need.

13. it’s good to attend at least one panel where most of the folks in the room are hostile to the kind of writing you do and you love. it gives you appreciation for the writing community you have developed back home, the one you were starting to get jaded about.

14. it’s ok to not end up being able to talk to the writer of the book that most recently turned your writing body inside out because she’s swamped with all the other writers whose writing bodies were also turned inside out by  her book, but you can still lean in and say thank you to her and she might look up and make eye contact with you and smile, and if it’s toward the middle of the conference you might already be so raw with creative longing that that smile breaks through the facade of super-confident/practically-blasé writer girl you thought you were wearing so well and you start to cry as soon as you walk out of the room.

15. it’s ok to mourn that you weren’t able to let yourself come to this place before. it’s ok to mourn that it’s taken you so many years to let yourself be a writer. it’s ok to mourn the books you haven’t yet written, the words you swallowed for so many years, all the years you gave all your creative energy to keeping yourself alive. And it’s ok to decide to turn some of the creative energy you’ve been devoting to serving others’ writing toward your own, finally, finally, finally.

16. it is good to say hello to the people on the street, to give some of your change to the women panhandling so they can get on the bus home, to the man outside the restaurant where all the writers are gathered over fat breakfasts. it’s good to talk to the man at the copy shop who is helping you to print out the pieces you’re going to take to that night’s poetry slam (which will end up overwhelming most of the straight undergraduates in the audience, given how explicitly these pieces evoke queer sex), who will tell you about his fifteen-year-old cousin who got shot in your hometown one day when all he was doing was getting off the bus, when all he was doing was trying to come home from school, on a day when fifteen people in that town were shot in unrelated incidents. you will tell him that you’re sorry for his loss and he will say, in my tradition, we think of death as more of a transition, he’s just become one of the ancestors, but it’s just a shame he didn’t get to materialize his potential in this realm.

17. it’s good to walk through all the smaller tables way at the back of the bookfair.

18. it is good to fall in love with all the poets — and it’s ok to feel a little pride and joy when, after your reading at the slam, the feature comes up to you and asks you if you’ve heard of Tara Hardy, because he could hear her influence in your work.

19. it is good to walk so much, back and forth from the train that takes you to the single hotel room you could afford on the other side of town that gives you that place to retreat, that your legs ache by the end of the conference. it’s ok to watch a terrible Tyler Perry movie while you come down from a reading, even though you’d had affirmed that day, over and over again, your own belief and experience, that linear narrative is a lie. Sometimes linear narrative is just the drug you need — just so long as you remember how to walk away from it, too.

20. it is ok not to go out to the bars, to go to the offsite readings, to try to do everything. it’s ok to walk around in the dark empty streets of the city, still ringing with everything you heard that day, everything you felt, feeling the words bubbling with pleasure and need under the skin of your fingers.

21. it is good to come home still singing inside, and still singed, the names of new beloved writers in your  mouth.

There’s more, but that more will come in future blog posts. Home now, I am still recovering. I am still reckoning with all I learned. I had one moment this weekend of I am never coming to one of these again, but now that I’m home, I’m trying to decide whether I can pull together the folks for a panel proposal for next year’s AWP in Los Angeles. I’ve got to follow up with all the wonderful folks I connected with at the Words for the Wounded panel, and I’ve got a workshop tonight, and another that begins on Wednesday — I’m wondering just how much of the wisdom and questioning I got to bear witness to in Minneapolis will push out through my mouth and into the writing room. We’ll see.

 

survivors writing: happy writing ourselves whole month <3

Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.  – Plato

April is both National Poetry Month and National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month. A few years ago I noticed that intersection and thought, That sounds like writing ourselves whole month. So, every April, I like to take a little time and reflect on these intersections that we who are trauma survivors who write walk within every day.

I have just returned from helping to facilitate a training of new AWA writing group facilitators. During the five days I spent with these folks — each of whom already knew how powerful it could be to write openly with others, taking risks with content and craft — I reflected on my own trainings, way back in 2001 and 2002.

I had never participated in anything like an Amherst Writers and Artists writing group when I showed up, shorn and ragged and scarred and scared, for my first facilitator’s training at Pat Schneider’s home back in the summer of 2001. I only knew that writing had saved my life, and I wanted to work with others for whom that might also be true. I’d taken one creative writing class in college, and one poetry workshop outside of school, and I’d never quite felt like I fit in any space that called itself “for writers.”

Pat’s method was a surprise and a revelation to me. This was a place where you could write whatever you wanted and no one could ask you if it really happened like that. No one could demand that you tell them more. No one could turn you away for your words. Your words would be welcomed and honored immediately. The facilitator wrote and risked and shared with us, rather than claiming the high ground of unassailable wisdom so many teachers led from.

Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Maya Angelou said, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” Having been turned out of home when I was 21 for the crime of asking my stepfather to stop demanding that I have sex with him, and as someone who had come to distrust the concept of home altogether, I was astonished to find that these writing circles could become a place of home in community with others: when we came there with whatever words arose in us, we were welcomed. Our words were attended to and responded to — people heard us when we spoke. No one analyzed what we wrote, and no one pretended like we hadn’t said anything.

No one could tell us what we had to write.
No one could tell us what we could not write.

I have been working and growing within these writing groups ever since. I am a writer now because of them.

Audre Lorde wrote, in her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,”[Poetry] is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

Many of us already know the power and necessity of poetry and other creative writing to give voice to that which has not yet been spoken or listened to. We know how poetry and can heal what we didn’t even know was wounded in us, can teach lessons that don’t get learned any other way, can express what we believed there were no words to express.

We learn, too, that writing can be a way of knowing, and a way of engaging with what we might know, or could know — these last being especially useful for trauma survivors, for whom memory can be like a half-rotted film strip, with much of the imagery lost or fragmented, but here and there, a clear sharp sound, that bright flash that means everything.

I hope you find time to be with your favorite poems this month, and maybe discover some new ones, too. I hope you risk being changed by a poem, one you write, or one you read. Or both.

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 danielle.ragan.ubuntu@gmail.com 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.

Taming.

“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.