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Fierce Hunger at LitCrawl 2014!

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

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

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

Reader Bios:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am reminded why we share our stories about sex

Le masculin l’emporte – Mais où ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“know it while you have it”

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

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

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

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

the laughing heart

- Charles Bukowski

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

reconnoitering with the body’s old injuries

There were lots of friends in my dreams last night, but I don’t remember anything else. I have things to think about: my cup of water with lemon, a candle, and the typewriter that I’ve covered my eyes from being able to see — my chiropractor gave me a hard time about my ergonomic setup, and now here I am typing away at a kitchen table. So I lower the monitor, type with just my hands illuminated, and look straight ahead, hoping that I’m striking the right keys. Trust that old learning, the typing lessons you got when you were 12 years old, or something close — and trust that you won’t lift the screen in twenty minutes and find only gibberish.

Today my body is better. What a thing to be able to say. There are places that are sore still, inflamed, along my spine, in my knee, in my ribs, after years of being out of alignment and now adjusted, corrected. But my body is better. Yesterday I went to see a structural bodyworker, who talked with me a little bit about what is going on for me — the spasm I had two years ago, old injuries that might be manifesting now, the sort of trauma I might hold in my body — before starting to work on my body.

I explained that most of my pain was on the right side of my body. He’s been a long time in this work — almost 30 years — and had some ideas about what might be going on even before we got on his adjusting table. He worked with his hands, feeling along my spine for places that are out of alignment and then making the adjustments by hand, too, using a table that drops out from underneath me when he pushes down for the adjustments. Mostly, it didn’t feel like anything was happening. I heard the loud ring of the table, felt him pressing on my back, but most of the adjustments were slight and small, I think — gentle corrections that will help energy and blood flow more smoothly through the contours inside me.

He talked to me all the way through the process, explaining when and where he felt something stuck, and when he felt things start to move and loosen again. He found major obstructions in my neck and in the ribs closest to my shoulder, in my lumbar spine, and then had some adjustment to do on my knee (which he said I’d hyperexended). My lumbar spine is the place that’s most inflamed now, after a long time  of being out of whack. This morning I am not sure what I feel. I kept waiting for some major release of emotional energy, and though I did tear up once or twice, I also laughed a lot, in surprise and curiosity — what’s going on here (especially when he cracked my neck manually, the way you see chiropractors doing on tv). The changes are mostly subtle — I still have some residual pain in the places that have been hurting, but I also think things are better there.

And what’s most astonishing is that the place in my butt under the glute muscle where I thought for sure that something was spasmed and held tight (this is the trouble with self-diagnosing when you don’t know anything about the problem), that tension is gone — it wast the torquing of my lumbar spine causing all of that trouble, that tight muscle. None of the stretches that I was doing would have ever helped “pop” or ease or relax that muscle out of spasm, because that wasn’t the problem.

Today I mostly feel peaceful, quiet inside, and grateful.

He was able to help me know what bones are connected where, and to start to explain what happens when they’re out of alignment. He was not rushed with me, and was willing to answer questions throughout. He asked me about old injuries and I described: the weekend before the spasm back in November 2012 (leaving day job, hard dancing in high heels, helping my sweetheart on her moving day); the time I fell hard right onto my back when I was up in the Tiburon hills with Sophie and she was running around with another dog, playing chase and keep away, and she ran straight for me, hit me at full speed, knocking my legs out from under me and dropping me to the ground; and my stepfather’s assaults. He found evidence of all of these (and more, likely) while he worked on my body. Later, at the end of the session, I mentioned something about my dad. He clarified — Your biological dad? I said, Yeah — my stepfather is in jail. This was the second time in a week I’d made that particular clarification in that way for somebody. He was delighted to hear this news, after feeling in my body and bones some of the aftermath of my stepfather’s violence. That’s a great end to that story! He cheered. And I thought so, too.

He was kind and direct, confident in a way that could have come off as cocky but didn’t — or at least didn’t bother me. I think I know what I’m going to find when I get there, he’d say after listening to me explain what I was feeling. Ok, I thought. I hope that’s true. And I hope you know how to fix it. And then he did. I feel like I have found another someone who may be able to help me understand my body. What a gift.

At one point I stood, transitioning from the adjustment table to the massage table. How does that feel, he wanted to know. But I didn’t really have words for it yet. Better–maybe. Can you relax your shoulders, he asked? But I thought I was relaxing my shoulders. No, he said, not yet. And then after he did some work on my ribs, he said, There — now you’ll be able to relax them. Not, now you’re relaxed, but: now you’ll be able to relax there — now the muscles have he opportunity to remember what relax looks like, after they shift out of this reactive posture, tightening up and around in response to a torqued spine and bone structure.

Now I’m trying to sit upright in my chair, look straight ahead (instead of down at the keyboard), keep my body in alignment as much as possible. I feel fortunate today, and grateful that I stumbled on a therapist I like, who then has been able to give me some ideas about steps to take with other practitioners to help me with my body. And I feel quiet and kind of heavy, like something deep is going on in me — and it probably is. My body is recovering from a chronic issue — it makes sense that I wouldn’t have an acute emotional response. The response will come slowly, I think. Everything in me feels a little tender, a little looser. I walk around gently, looking with my inside eyes: does this still hurt? What do I need to do differently here? My bodyworker wants me to wait for a few days before I start really exercising again, to let the swelling in my lower back heal, let that part of my spine get better before I go compressing it again like what happens when you jog.

I had made a lot of assumptions about what was going on in my body, based on how I felt — it must be spasms, muscle knots, tightnesses — but these were all reactions to something more structural, deeper.

Are there metaphors in that for writing? Sometimes the trouble isn’t in the symptoms — it’s in the structure; change your framework, the bones of your book and your story, and suddenly everything flows a little better, things get a little looser, more agile, more interesting, more limber.

Also: sometimes we can’t fix the problem ourselves — in our books or in our bodies — sometimes we have to get some damn help from someone who knows more than we do. And that doesn’t mean we’ve failed. It means we’re smart; we know what we know and what we don’t know, and know we can use guidance and suggestions around what we don’t yet know.

Anyway, today I am grateful for this skin and bones, these fingers on the keyboard, and your eyes out there — I am grateful for the generous response I got to my posts about what was going on with my body and how scared I was of dealing with it. Kindness goes a long way. Thank you for that. Big love right back at you today.

 

Jen’s ten rules for writers (for today)

Sometimes things conspire to keep the body from pulling itself out of bed at 4:50am. Sometimes the dog has been awake at irregular intervals all night, snapping off sharp, surprising barks at the neighbors who had the audacity to have a gathering on their summer-vacation Monday night and into Tuesday morning. Sometimes she’s up at 1:48am, shaking and scratching and agitating so that her collar rings like poorly-tuned chimes, needing to go outside. Sometimes the body stands at the back door, falling back asleep while upright, waiting for the dog to finish exploring the night yard and ask to be let back in. Sometimes the work went late into the night and rest didn’t come early enough. Sometimes the leg spasms, dancing all by itself, and the rest of the body doesn’t want to stretch it — that road leads directly to charlie horse.

So sleep, such as it is, blows right through the 4:50 alarm, through the many snoozes, and continues on until almost 7. Sometimes the sweetheart’s arms are just too sweet to slip away from, and so it’s a whole lot better to cuddle back in under the covers after every snooze. And those precious early morning writing hours are spent in dreams. But the dreams will make their way into some character’s head, someday. That’s the hope.

~~ ~~ ~~

Today is a self-care day: body work, therapy, CoDA — not in that order. There’s much work to do — we have a beautiful group gathered for our summer online write whole session, and folks have already begun to share strong and gorgeous work there; our fundraising campaign for Sex Still Spoken Here (the Erotic Reading Circle anthology) is in the homestretch and needs a lot of attention in order to make our $5000 goal; Dive Deep‘s SummerFall 2014 Cohort is underway and manuscripts are arriving for response; Write Whole‘s in-person session begins next week, and I’ve got to prepare our syllabus and get the word out to any last-minute registrants — I’ve also got a syllabus to prepare for a master class for the National Poetry Slam at the beginning of next month and start getting the word out to local colleges about our 2014-2015 workshop offerings… so today’s practice will be to relax during the self-care time, and trust that the work will get done as it needs to get done. Whew.

~~ ~~ ~~

Last Thursday, In the first meeting of our Dive Deep SummerFall cohort, I asked us to write (in 10 minutes) our 10 rules for writers (I got the idea from Advice to Writers, which shares various writers’ lists of 10 rules now and again…). We got some great lists, and some interesting overlap among many of our lists. What would get included on your list of 10 “rules” for writers? What would you leave off your list of “rules”?

Here’s what my list looked like:

1) Start now.

2) Open a notebook. Get a fast-moving pen. Sit down at a corner table in a bustling cafe, next to a window, wearing headphones connected to a tape player blaring music you’ve listened to often enough that the sound simply permeates your brain, creating a barrier between the loud voices around you, the even louder and more hostile voices within you, and the words you can barely even allow yourself to know you want to write. Put the pen to the page. Write one word, then another, as fast as you can, faster than the eyes of your inner editors and censors can read. Keep going for 20 minutes, take a breath, then keep going for another 20 years.

3) Understand that anyone’s rules for writing are useless to you.

4) Move your body in ways that feel excellent to you and make you sweat at least as often as, and for as long as, you write.

5) Be around animals — they being you into the present moment better than anything else.

6) Read books you love. Read books you don’t love. Read in and out of the genre you want to write.

7) Write what you love — not what you think you ought to write. Forgive yourself for not always loving what you “ought” to write.

8) Remember that writing needs room to breathe — loafing, wandering, and lazing aimlessly are often deeply creative acts.

9) Take paid work that has nothing to do with writing, leaves you energy to write, and provides material for your writing.

10). Be easy with you. And keep going.

take up space in the public arena for the erotic body

I miss my early morning company — there are no owls here to accompany me into this early morning writing time.  I had strange dreams, and they’ve faded now. My body is still in need of help, but it’s better.

This weekend I started thinking again about offering a sacred sexuality class, a group for women (to begin with) where we can write about the pleasures of the flesh and how exactly holy they feel to us — how much it matters that we are in our desire, that we feel our longing body, that we discover how to allow pleasure to bring us all the way open to another person, and, more importantly, to ourselves.

Right now, it’s hard to think about how to justify such a group, just as it’s been difficult to do a lot of promo for the fundraiser for Sex Still Spoken Here, the Erotic Reading Circle anthology — there are wars and violence all over the world. Israel has invaded Gaza, and hundreds of people are dying. The rebels in the Ukraine are shooting planes out of the sky. The people of Syria are dying in thee hundreds. People are sending their infants and children across international borders, alone, in order that they might be safe and free. The people of Sudan find themselves in the middle of a civil war. Every paper I open is filled with stories about sexual violence and atrocity. How can this be a time to speak about erotic pleasure and investigation, about sexual delight and recovery? Isn’t that the last thing on our minds: our own joy?

I spent awhile yesterday reading a story in the New York Times Magazine about the former president of Penn State, who can’t understand why he is being held to account for his lack of action in the Jerry Sandusky case. I avoided the main section of the paper, filled not just with stories about war violence but also about sexual violence. Last week there was a story about young woman who brought charges of rape against her perpetrator on a college campus, and now regrets having done so, given the terrible mess the college has made of the whole thing. I couldn’t bring myself to read that story.

I am grateful for the (apparently sudden) increased attention to sexual violence across the globe, and for the reporting about the way rape is used as a war crime, as a tool of control and isolation, the way sexual violence shows up on college campuses, in church settings in families, in shelters and so-called safe zones, in children’s homes  — how many children’s charities like the one run by Jerry Sandusky are simply either organized by or targeted by criminals to use as corrals of prey? I am grateful for the increased awareness of the prevalence and pervasiveness of sexual violence — and I mostly can’t read all the stories about it that show up in the newspaper or in my newsfeed these days. I turn off the radio. I close the paper. I close the tab on my web browser.

A couple of months ago — have I written about this here? — I broke my car after listening to the beginning  of an NPR news story about a mob rape at a rally somewhere in the middle east or northern Africa (Egypt, I think), and the broadcasters played an excerpt of a recording made of the assault. No warning, no heads-up, no note to listeners: hey, in the next thirty seconds, you might hear something that will take you back to your childhood. Given that we know how prevalent sexual violence is, in homes and in other settings through out an individual’s life, here and around the planet, does it not make sense to assume that a vast percentage of your listening audience might be profoundly and negatively impacted by playing such a recording? I get it that you can’t give a warning in front of every news story — but if you’re going prefix other stories with warnings to your listeners that there might be language in the coming story that they might find offensive (the n-word, the f-word), then don’t you think you might want to use that same logic and apply it to stories about sexual violence, especially when you are going to be unleashing the sounds of someone actually being violated? If it helps, keep in mind that you have male survivors in your audience, too. Maybe that will help you to take survivor sensibility into account — for goodness’ sake, you don’t even have to just worry about women anymore. I hit my radio’s power button so hard with the heel of my hand that I ended up sending my radio back into the bowels of my car’s dashboard — now there’s a little hole in the dashboard, reminding me to pay attention to what I’m listening to.

Once upon a time, I thought it was my responsibility to take in all of these stories, to read or watch or listen or otherwise consume whatever stories showed up in popular culture about sexual or domestic violence — it’s important to be informed, I told myself any anyone who, after listening to me ranting at the news, asked if maybe I wanted to listen to something else. I shouted at my radio while driving home from work and shouted at tv news broadcasters over my third glass of wine. I thought that, as an activist and victim’s advocate, it was my personal responsibility to listen and analyze and respond. But the trouble was that I didn’t respond (except sometimes in my notebooks, and in loud and angry rants that made it impossible for anyone to watch the tv news with me). Instead, I drank, trying to get away from what was already inside me and what was now also coming at me from the outside. I lived the life of a sexual violence survivor, I worked with recent victims and survivors, and I consumed stories about victimization — I didn’t think I had the right to get away, to take a break from the reality of sexual violence, its pervasiveness and use as a weapon of terror and control over folks of all ages, genders and ethnicities. I burnt out over and over and over again with this mindset.

I’ve let myself off that hook, though. These days, I don’t read most of the stories about sexual assault that I come across, and don’t believe that that decision makes me any less potent as an advocate for survivors. I am grateful that the issue of sexual violence is getting more attention. I am glad for the relative amount of space these stories take up in the front section of the New York Times these days — not, of course, at all because I am glad these crimes are occurring. The ideal situation would be for us not to need column inches for stories like these, because rape was no longer being used as a weapon, because men (and women with the same mindset) no longer acted on the belief that others’ bodies exist solely for their use and pleasure. But that’s not yet the case in the world I live in, so I am grateful that these stories now rank as “news” in the minds of news media. Yet, I don’t feel I need to consume each and every one of these stories anymore. I carry enough stories in my body and bones. I give myself permission to turn the news off, to turn the page, to read something else. I’ll be sitting with those stories later, in writing groups, responding to the powerful language of survivors who are finding words for their own experiences of trauma and resilience.

This started out as an apology for wanting to hold open space for the pleasure and the power of the erotic body at a time of overwhelming sorrow, violence, shame and loss. But when is it not that time in our culture? When is there not always something more important to think about and deal with than the tender and exquisite possibility of our erotic selves, the quiet and insistent voice that demands something more than devastation, that manages to hold on to our capacity for joy even in the face of betrayal and evil? Sex can be used to sell everything but our own piece of mind; sex is fine when it’s manipulated by the same hands that want bodies available for their own pleasure, when it’s manhandled in service of the buying public’s mindless consumpton — it’s not fine when it’s offered as a space of empowerment, deep embodiment, and true self-control. Sex can take up airtime when it’s used as a weapon, or as a means of selling cars or beer or electronics or clothes or anything else. Sex is censored when it represents only itself. Sex is viewed as trivial when its presented as a wholly healthy human capacity, or when we ask, how can those of us who have been harmed through sexual acts reclaim the body’s birthright to joy and pleasure? How can (noncommercial) pleasure be as newsworthy as pain?

And so I apologize, have been apologizing all the years I’ve offered erotic writing groups, at least internally: I know, this is frivolous, I’m sorry. It’s not as important as the real work you’re doing, trying to call attention to violence or “end” violence. I know, I’m taking about eros, and that’s so much more discomfiting to you than talking about violence.

Why apologize, though, for trying to change that very fact — for wanting to undo the violence we have so thoroughly inhabited that we find it easier and more comfortable to talk in public about hatred than about embodied love. Why is that our preference? Why is that the way we want our world to be?

The voices in myself that call me out, that clamor for apology, that tell me I have something to be sorry for becuase I want to make space for erotic voices, erotic language, erotic celebration, erotic joy — even and especially in the aftermath and the shadow of our sexually violent culture — are the same parts that have worked all these years to keep me safe by keeping me quiet and small: if we don’t rock the boat, maybe we won’t get hurt. Even with all lived evidence to the contrary, still these parts of my psyche want to pretend like this might be true.

I’ll let you know when I’ve scheduled that sacred sexuality writing group. In the meantime, consider the power and beauty of embodied and complicated erotic expression — particularly in the face of silencing and violence — and hold open some space for your own beautiful and layered erotic self. Check out Sex Still Spoken Here and other media that take up space in the public arena for the erotic body.

I’ll let you know when

The story of Sex Still Spoken Here … and how you can help!

Cover of Sex Still Spoken HereWe’re a third of the way toward our goal, and we need your donations and your help getting the word out about the Erotic Reading Circle anthology –before you investigate our excellent (and dirty) referral contest that’s running right now, let me tell you the story of the latest incarnation of the Erotic Reading Circle and how this book came to be:

In 2006, I approached Carol Queen and asked whether she would be interested in reinstating the Erotic Reading Circle. I’d learned about the ERC during my first three months in San Francisco, when I was running my first erotic writing group for sexual trauma survivors. At Community Thrift (one of my my favorite bookstores in San Francisco), I came across a book entitled Sex Spoken Here, which anthologized some of the amazing work that had been shared at the Erotic Reading Circle during its run at Good Vibrations. In their introduction, the co-editors, Carol Queen and Jack Davis, described the power, beauty, and community that the Erotic Reading Circle had nurtured during its run into the mid-90s. Here I was, a newbie to San Francisco in 2003, researching the healing/transformative potential of erotic expression for survivors of sexual violence. “Wait,” I thought. “Why doesn’t a space like the Erotic Reading Circle still exist?”

A few years later, I had had the good luck to be introduced to Carol, began facilitating an erotic writing group at the Center for Sex and Culture, and even though I was still starstruck whenever I spoke to her (an experience that continues to this day!), I asked whether she would be interested in rebooting the Erotic Reading Circle under the Center’s auspices — and she said yes! We’ve been meeting monthly (every fourth Wednesday, 7:30-9:30pm, at the CSC) ever since — that’s coming on 8 years now — co-facilitating a space in which erotic writers can bring their work and have it received with respect, enthusiasm, and generous feedback.

A couple of years ago, we (along with our co-editor, the tremendous Amy Butcher) put out a call to our ERC regulars, asking for submissions for an anthology — we wanted to share with the larger community the strong, hot, layered, complicated, powerful writing that shows up at the Reading Circle every month. The book that resulted from this call — Sex Still Spoken Here — includes stories, poems, and essays from 27 ERC authors. It also includes excerpts from a conversation among the editors (in which we discuss the power of creative erotic space, the importance of erotic writing to the larger literary community, and the ways in which the ERC has supported new and established writers in the SF Bay area for all of these years) and a brief how-to guide, for folks who’d like to bring a Reading Circle into their own communities.

Self publishing costs money. So does paying authors. The editor have volunteered hundreds of hours on behalf of this project. The Center for Sex and Culture is a long-established non-profit doing extraordinary work in our community, and needs your support in order to get cultural products like Sex Still Spoken Here into the hands of folks who need to know that erotic expression comes in a whole lot more than 50 shades. Please support this project — every single dollar helps. Through our indiegogo campaign, you can pre-order the book (in print or e-format), or avail yourself any of our other tantalizing perks. You can also pass the word — if you have ever participated in the ERC or one of Writing Ourselves Whole’s erotic writing groups, I would ask you to please forward this message. Every step helps further the ERC’s mission to create more awareness and respect for the vast breadth of erotic creative expression, and to hold open a consistent space for those writers who are willing to risk writing the erotic.

We’ve raised just over one-third of the $5000 we need to publish and distribute this book, and we are so grateful to all of those who have already donated! Please help bring Sex Still Spoken Here into the world. Thank you, much love, and keep writing!

igg.me/at/sssh-anthology

not just a piece of broken and damaged baggage

And what about this morning — I wake up from snooze-dreams in which I’m at a health food store where they’re playing loud German industrial music over the sound system. There’s a video playing on a tv mounted high up on the wall in one of the rooms (this is a health food store I’ve visited in other dreams, a part of my dream home, I guess), and there’s the lead singer, a high-glam, big-haired femme man that someone calls Headwig — I realize this is who the play was based on. He’s wearing yellow leather tight-fitting pants and jacket, with long, thin, dyed blonde hair. The video is shot from the base of the front of the stage, looking up at him, as though the camera person is in the audience, and so Headwig is enormously towering and imposing as he stalks around the stage between verses. I don’t remember what I was buying at the store, or why I was there, but now I have in my head the 90′s German industrial song Du Hast, which I think I’ll have to listen to later.

There are so many thing I think I ought to write about here during the days — but I don’t make notes about any of them, so when I sit down with my eyes still bleary and my body aching and tired, my head is empty — what am I going to do with this time now that I’ve managed to drag my body out of bed? What I want is for this to be time when I don’t have to rush through my writing, when I can write slowly and without interruption. (Also, I am tired of writing the word ‘writing’ — I don’t want to be so self-conscious about my process anymore. I don’t want to tell you about what I want to be writing, how how I want to be writing, la la la. Let’s just be in the work instead.)

Yesterday I managed to actually make a call to a doctor’s office about what’s going on with my body — the constant tenseness in my piriformis muscle (apparently leftover from the spasm that laid me low for three months two years ago) has now caused the whole right side of my body to tense up and has started impacting my knee. My knee is recovering from whatever happened to make it pop when I was running earlier this week, but still I’m not exercising, and I feel like a failure — here I just finished this book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which left me motivated to dedicate myself more fully to both running/exercise and my writing practice, and now I feel like I’ve been thwarted in that space of inspiration. I’ve spent most of the last couple of days feeling nauseous because of the tenseness in my shoulder and glute and knee; my right calf spasms fairly constantly (it’s like I’ve got a fluttering bird inside my leg) when I’m sitting still, and then aches as though I’ve had a charlie horse. And yet I feel wholly stymied when I go to call someone to ask for help. What am I supposed to say?

In this case, I was calling a sports medicine department at a prominent hospital. I spent ten minutes or so looking at my phone after I entered in the number. Sports medicine? I’m not a sports person — how do I talk to these people? What I imagined is that my call would be answered by some rushed secretary who didn’t have time for me to be blubbering and stammering on, not knowing what I needed — I wanted to get clear about what I was going to say before I called. Well, my body hurts, and I need help. Isn’t that the base of things? I shamed myself for not knowing what to say — what kind of grown woman can’t call the doctor and articulate why she’s calling? And then I started spinning, on down this rabbit hole, embarrassed that I felt so frozen, in pain and in need of some help, desperately  wanting someone to be able to tell me what’s really going on with my body. Shouldn’t I know how to take care of myself by now?

For most people, I imagine in these moments, this would be a straightforward and easy task — you call, you say what’s wrong, you ask your questions, etc etc. But I was already crying by the time I dialed the number. I guess I’ll just do my best, I said to myself. Why was this so hard? Certainly I felt like I’d failed, not taking care of myself, needing to ask for outside help in the first place. But then I felt ashamed for not knowing the language of the body. In calling a sports medicine place, I was suddenly entering into a realm of specialized knowledge where I didn’t know the jargon or lingo and I was going to be found out immediately as a dilettante and loser who doesn’t even know how to talk about her own bones and musculature. I have the idea that real athletes know how to talk about their bodies — they’ve had coaches and trainers, they have been indoctrinated into this world of the body, and the hurt body. Someone else would know what to do for themselves if they got hurt in this way.

(Yes, a voice inside me says, Jen, yes, they would know — they would know to call a doctor right when that spasm first hit them, instead of hobbling around for three months, then two years, trying to take care of it mostly on their own.)

Back when this first happened, I told myself I wanted to figure out what caused the spasm, psychologically — I figured it had something to do with  going out on my own (leaving my day job) to focus solely on my writing groups, and it also had something to do with my trauma history, because of where this muscle is located — it was my sciatic nerve that hurt so much, that made it difficult for me to walk. I thought if I cold just get to the root of things, my body would (magically) heal itself. This is how I was indoctrinated as a teenager: Every ailment is psychosomatic in origin. You don’t need a doctor — you need to get to the psychological root of the problem, and once you do that, everything will get better.

Somehow my sister didn’t internalize this message: she goes to the doctor. She manages to get help for her body when her body needs help. It’s amazing to me. I remember learning that she’d had the same dentist for 7 years or something, that she went regularly, during a period of time when I’d been without dental insurance and had to have emergency dental surgery to take care of a tooth I’d allowed to disintegrate in my mouth and had to take out a loan to get it done because the situation was now so expensive to deal with — how did she have it in her to take care of herself that way? Why were we so different here?

I am trying to channel her capacity now that I have to make another phone call to another doctor. What if I call the wrong kind of doctor? What I want is a kind of parent, who can listen to me talk about this ailment and who will be able to diagnose me (physically and mentally) on the spot — oh, it sounds like you need this. I would like to find a trauma aware doctor who knows about muscles and spasms and history locked up in skin who can tell me what I need to do now to take care of myself so that I can get back to moving the way I am just now learning to be comfortable with — I don’t want to have to be out of my body again. What I want is a doctor who is kind and understanding, who gets (intuitively!) why it might have been hard for me to call them, who congratulates me for even making the call: I know how hard and scary this must have been. Come on in and we’ll have some tea and you can tell me what’s been going on with your body and then together we can work to figure out what’s wrong and I can work with you to fix things up and get you moving again. Would that be so hard? Maybe if I didn’t need someone who’d also swipe my insurance card and take my paltry co-payment, sure. But we go with what we’ve got.

When I called the sports medicine center yesterday, the receptionist was in fact rushed — she interrupted me to ask if I’d been in to the clinic before, and then took what I’d begun to explain (back spasm — ok, you’re spasming…) and told me she could get me in to see someone that day. But it turned out that they were out of network for my Covered California insurance. After I hung up, I sat down outside in my little office (I mean there in the garden that I’m trying to nurture) and cried hard out of shame and embarrassment. Why is this so difficult for me? Why can’t I take care of myself better? I felt like a failed parent.

How do we learn, as adults, to advocate for the small selves we continue to carry within us? When do we stop being embarrassed for what we don’t know, what we didn’t learn, how we weren’t trained to self-advocate, how unfamiliar or even uncomfortable we are within our own skin , with the language of this body? No one working the phones at a clinic has time to listen to me hem and haw because I’m so astonished to be needing to call a sports medicine clinic in the first place — me, whose only sport for years was self-abuse and drinking, suddenly needs someone to tell me how to stretch right and take care of my body so that I can continue running? What? Also, I want to know the language that my body is speaking — what is she saying to me when my calf muscle is fluttering with little spasms, or when my knee pops like that (not a tear, my sweetheart tells me, but still something that was getting more and more tense that just released suddenly in a sharp way and there on Lakeshore I hopped up and didn’t run anymore — the joggers who passed by me in the immediate aftermath looking at me with worried eyes then glancing away quick, their blonde ponytails swinging behind them).

It is scary to need help and not know how to ask for it, to put myself in the hands of an authority figure knowing how they could mistreat or mishandle me. (I keep reading the missives from my dear friend just in the hospital who has had to learn self advocacy the very hard way after endless horrible encounters with medical professionals who just an her to sit nice and quiet and take her medicine, even when they are trying to give her medicine that would kill her, or when they want to mishandle her body or when they want to dismiss her worries.) I have plenty of reason to be nervous as I enter into the realm of the medical. The only physician I went to see as an adolescent was my stepfather’s doctor, who filled me with shots so they could understand what I was allergic to all of a sudden — no one tested me with his dander, to see if maybe I was allergic to incest. I had to figure that one out on my own.

So today I am thinking about self care, self parenting, and about when self care looks like something other than encouraging myself to rest or play — sometimes it looks like pushing myself to do something hard and scary like picking a doctor out of the blue and hoping that they don’t fuck me up. I wish that it didn’t have to get so bad before I took care of my body. This inner kid has to get pretty sore before the parent in me will look past her own discomfort and dis-ease and take the kid’s hand and say, ok, let’s go take care of this. And mostly that “taking care of” looks like something made up — let’s try out this yoga routine that we pulled from drawings we saw in a book once (was it Our Bodies, Ourselves?) and have never figured out even if were doing the positions right from anyone who actually knows anything about yoga. It’s like we still live in a cage, and the only ones who can help us are ourselves. I have a vision of the characters in Room, Emma Donoghue’s brilliant novel, who are held captive, mother and child, so if the child has anything wrong with him the mother has to do with what they have in that room — she has to play games with him to help him get better from ay injury or sickness — there’s no way to go out and get help. And in these cases, it’s usually the child who will be the one who has to break free — it’s the child inside, the one that’s hurting, that will be the one to actually push me to make some change, to take this step, to take care of this body that I’ve acted for so long like is just a piece of broken and damaged baggage I have to carry around with me from place to place, the thing that makes it possible for me to write but just barely, the thing that I value for its ability to keep going with no maintenance, no oil, barely enough fuel to keep it running (and bad fuel, too, low octane, high waste product). I’ve treated my body like a car I never have to get tuned up, and then I’m surprised when the care stops dead by the side of the road one day and just won’t go anymore — what’s the matter, car? I push the gas pedal, I put the clutch into first, but the gears just grind hard against each other (are there even gears in cars anymore?) and the wheels roll off and away in all four directions.

Turns out I can’t figure out everything all my myself from books; I need some expert guidance, someone who knows about cars to come up to me and out their hand on my shoulder and say, kindly and without judgement, Honey, you gotta add some oil once in awhile. Here’s how to do that — and here’s what happens when you don’t. This is what deep self-maintenance looks like, and this is part of what happens when you don’t pay attention to your body for a couple of decades. So today I’ll make another phone call, and take one more step toward being a better parent to this hurting self inside.

Now the song in my head has shifted. Be easy with you today, and I’ll try to do the same here.

 

morning fragments

Good morning good morning. I like these dark hours, reaching for the keyboard when my eyes are still half-closed and I am yawning, my body and mind not quite yet awake. Everything is drowsy yet, still percolating. What do I want to say? I’m drinking some nettle tea to help with the allergies that have flared since I got back to CA. It’s darker now than it was at this time of day just a month ago — the light has already changed, the sun shifting backwards in her cycle (of course that’s only how it looks to those of us stuck here on earth, where we believe we are the center of everything), and coming up later and later in the morning.

My right knee is aching this morning, something popped while we were running yesterday afternoon, and now it hurts. the muscles in my right calf are fluttering, like just after a spasm, chattering, and my right shoulder is tense, too. Time to finally find a doctor. The pop happened just halfway, or not even quite, through my run around the lake yesterday, and I had to walk the rest of the way. I felt frustrated and disappointed with myself, my body: really, body? We finally found our way back into a desire to exercise, to move and sweat and feel and inhabit this physical container, and now we’re going to start falling apart? Can’t we have just a few years of joy and adoration in the movement, touching back into how we felt when we were small, in the time of Before? Is it really already too late?

~~ ~~ ~~

I have been thinking about the fact that it’s been 21 years since the last time my stepfather had his hands on me, when I was 21 years old. I have lived a lifetime, as long again as I’d been alive up to that point, and still I am blaming him for how my life has turned out, for the fact that I didn’t graduate on time and didn’t have any confidence in myself and took a left turn away from the road of success because I was afraid of money, of having something I cared about that could be taken away from me, could be used against me. And here I am still battling with that demon, still afraid to live fully, still he has won all of these years later.

~~ ~~ ~~

“Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same sort of tack I find necessary when writing a novel. I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm. This is the important thing for long-term projects. Once you set the pace, the rest will follow. The problem is getting the flywheel to spin at a set speed-and to get to that point takes as much concentration and effort as you can manage.”
― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

These are the morning thoughts. Take a deep breath. Focus. Let the words come. Turn to the novel and get some work done there before the sun has quite yet opened her eyes. Everything wants to get in the way of this one simple goal. I am finding this morning momentum again.