Category Archives: Uncategorized

a break in the flow

Red painting on white background of two oxen yoked together, feeding on plants, beneath the words, Good morning, good morning. It’s quiet here, and grey, and chilly, and peaceful. The dog is curled up on the rug, waiting for me to be done on the shiny clacky thing so I can come play.

I spent my morning writing time complaining about things I’m not going to share here. Suffice to say, for now, that the writing helped, even though I’m still mad. And this.

I spent my ride home from work yesterday reading about R. Kelly. And then the news about OJ. So maybe not a great day, yesterday, for the fight against sexual assault and domestic violence, or, you know, femicide in all its forms.

So I came home and I baked bread. I did work. I watered the garden, admired the zucchini, the many green tomatoes, the purple string beans, the chard and sunflowers and potatoes and nasturtium and marigolds.

I don’t know. Is it really so difficult for us, as a people, as a human people, to be kind to one another? I know, I know — but why?

Here’s a poem for this day, because sometimes poetry is the only thing that gets in and touches the places that are lost and confused and scared and aching and need to laugh…

(ok, two):

Boy and Egg
Naomi Shihab Nye

Every few minutes, he wants
to march the trail of flattened rye grass
back to the house of muttering
hens. He too could make
a bed in hay. Yesterday the egg so fresh
it felt hot in his hand and he pressed it
to his ear while the other children
laughed and ran with a ball, leaving him,
so little yet, too forgetful in games,
ready to cry if the ball brushed him,
riveted to the secret of birds
caught up inside his fist,
not ready to give it over
to the refrigerator
or the rest of the day.

 

One Boy Told Me
Naomi Shihab Nye

Music lives inside my legs.
It’s coming out when I talk.

I’m going to send my valentines
to people you don’t even know.

Oatmeal cookies make my throat gallop.

Grown-ups keep their feet on the ground
when they swing. I hate that.

Look at those 2 o’s with a smash in the middle—
that spells good-bye.

Don’t ever say “purpose” again,
let’s throw the word out.

Don’t talk big to me.
I’m carrying my box of faces.
If I want to change faces I will.

Yesterday faded
but tomorrow’s in boldface.

When I grow up my old names
will live in the house
where we live now.
I’ll come and visit them.

Only one of my eyes is tired.
The other eye and my body aren’t.

Is it true all metal was liquid first?
Does that mean if we bought our car earlier
they could have served it
in a cup?

There’s a stopper in my arm
that’s not going to let me grow any bigger.
I’ll be like this always, small.

And I will be deep water too.
Wait. Just wait. How deep is the river?
Would it cover the tallest man with his hands in the air?

Your head is a souvenir.

When you were in New York I could see you
in real life walking in my mind.

I’ll invite a bee to live in your shoe.
What if you found your shoe
full of honey?

What if the clock said 6:92
instead of 6:30? Would you be scared?

My tongue is the car wash
for the spoon.

Can noodles swim?

My toes are dictionaries.
Do you need any words?

From now on I’ll only drink white milk
on January 26.

What does minus mean?
I never want to minus you.

Just think—no one has ever seen
inside this peanut before!

It is hard being a person.

I do and don’t love you—
isn’t that happiness?

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

Be easy with yourself on this Friday. Write if you’re called to write, and maybe give yourself a little time with a tree or a flower or a plant or a pet. Thanks for your words, whatever form they take… 

it all stays (es bleibt alles)

Poster on a stick, pink background behind a line drawing of a house; inside the house are the words Good morning, good morning. Upstairs, the bread dough is resting on the breadboard. I wake up to a room smelling of wild yeast, dough rising. I think a house should always smell like freshly baked bread, or about-to-be-baked-bread, don’t you?

Sometimes you make a decision and you feel something land in you, a place of possibility opens, a thing of yes hollows out all the no you’ve swallowed, and makes itself at home. You become a place where yes can live. Where future can live. Where tomorrow can live. Where hope can live. Some days you are all outshine and coffee grounds, you are the flicker of the flame and you are the flame, you are the waft of steam rising from the green tea and the hum of the wing of the hummingbird hovering over the blossom’s throat, you are the feet finding a new path, you are the fingers welcoming an old stone. You are the gist of a sentence, you are the stamen’s statement, you are the ripening peach, you are the lengthening glisten on a growing beach, you are the bean. Some days you are more than yesterday’s ache, yesterdays no, yesterday’s grief and loss, you are more than garbage, you are more than what was thrown out or ignored, you are more than the book left on the shelf for years, unread, unheralded, unblessed. Some days you are the cool chill on the neck of a sleeping deer, nestled in a place safe beneath a copse of trees, some days you are the copse of trees, you are the safety, some days you, even you, are the safe place. Your body is the safe place, your hands are the safe place, your mouth is the safe place, and your heart, as you know your heart, has always been the safe place.

Some days you are echo and dance, you are willpower and dive, you are forget and forgive, you are revenge, you are remember, you are never forget, you are anger and you are yes and you are power. You are the child curled up on the couch and the youth hiding in the closet and the young man walking down the street with a strut he thinks he doesn’t deserve but doesn’t know how to live without. You are the without. You are the strut. You are the do until die, you are the fake it until you make it, you know how to make it because you have made it here. Some days you are more than the account balance, you are more than the hours of life traded for money, you are more than the receipt, more than the transcript, more than the record, the data, the bits of information floating around in the world about you, you are their aggregation, and then you are more. You are the flicker of the squirrel tail, you are the faint hoot of the owl in the woods, you are the place of promise, you are the finger of regret and then you are the finger that scrapes through cake frosting and brings sweet to your mouth.

Some days you are learn and some days you are unlearn, you are forget, you are unwanting. You are the eyes looking across the water at distant islands, you are the eyes examining the feet of a newborn child, you are the hands that can safely hold a newborn child. Some days you are more than the loss, even though you might also still be the loss. You are the cup that holds the tea, you are the nurturance, you are the truth-telling, you are the sharpened pencil, you are the dance of pollen.

Sometimes you are more than electronic motes across a virtual dust screen, you are not the butterfly caught on the car grille, you are not the emptied rubbish can, you are not the messily erased chalkboard. Some days you are yawn and whisper and you rise from your bed like you deserve to be living. Some days the words come to you in the middle of the night and you meet them, on the page or in dreams. Some days you are the art that lives you. Some days you are the twist of the plot. Some days you are what hopes for escape and you are escape. Some days you are more than what begs in you to die, what begs in you to stop and please can’t we just stop and rest, some days you stop and rest. Some days you welcome the flow of your life, the rises and falls, the swells and thins, the ebbs and purls, the rhythms of you, the rhythms you are, the blood that follows the moon, the shallow dance, the circles, the spirals, the contours, the glisten, the blossom. You are the seed in the ground and the fingers that cover it with dirt with soil and the water that drenches and feeds.

Some days you cannot stop to think about the right word, you are the right word at the right time. Some days you know that you have always been the right word at the right time, even if someone couldn’t hear it, even if you were ignored or silenced, even if you couldn’t say the word out loud, you have always been the right word at the right time. Some days you are more than what enough holds in your belly. Some days you want what lives inside enough, the rest there, the nest, the promise, the comfort, the cradle in lap, the safe place, the knowing that you don’t have to hustle at the center of you, that you have earned the right to love yourself, that you have always been the love you deserve. That you are so far beyond ok that you can’t even see ok in your rear view mirror anymore, that you are the wind through your hair on the highway, convertible top down, sun shining on everything like a wish, you are the breeze through fingers stuck out of car windows and the ears of dogs flapping in joy. You are that joy. You are the small wishes, the littles delights that are the best ones, the bag of candy, the silly laughter, the eyes watching a dog sleep in a safe bed.

Some days you can trust that you are where you need to be, even if you know that you can’t stay there, even if there’s something in you that has to change or get out. And some days there is nothing in you that wants to escape your life anymore. Some days you have found a place where love is a blossom you can believe in, where kindness lives like breath, where your voice is a song written on the walls, written on the inside of every wrist and thigh, where your body is a delight of strength and comfort, where yours can be the body that someone wants to live in, some days that someone – can you believe it? – is you.

I woke up early, before the alarm, to lines of poemish things flowing in my head and I repeated the lines to myself like I do, thinking that I will remember even though I think I’ve never once remembered lines that came to me in the middle of the night that I don’t write down. but I woke up remembering anyway, not the lines themselves but the fact of them, the possibility of meeting the page this morning with imagination and flow, with something hopeful — San Francisco may not care but still I meet her at the corner and buy a batch of fresh Thai chilis at the farmer’s market, and the man with the light eyes didn’t remember my name, which made me happy for reasons I can’t quite explain. The man with the long hair and the question mark body was not around on Mission Street yesterday.

Something is growing inside me, something that wants answering.

I was thinking yesterday about how I used to memorize poems in German, back when I was in high school — excerpts from Goethe’s Faust — for competitions. (These were my earliest poetry recitals.) Sometimes I try to think of a way to say something, to communicate a thought, and the phrase pops up in German — unbidden, as the saying goes, like all that learning is still in me somewhere, the language, the vocabulary, the words, like they belong here, this language I loved all through junior high and high school, into college. I thought for sure I’d visit Germany, spend time there, maybe study. But then life took a different turn.

Maybe the trajectory we thought we’d take got bent and twisted into other directions. We grieve where we thought we’d get to, and by when; we grieve all that we thought we were supposed to be and do — but if I step back and look at what life has unfurled around me, there are days that I can take pleasure in what was and is. The anchor of me is still floating somewhere, not tethered, still free. There is still time to do so much of what the younger me wanted.

Some days there’s peace to be had in releasing the old dreams, even if we grieve as we let them fall from our hands — and some days we can pick them back up again, dust them off, look at them from a different angle. Yes, this fragment of life can still be mine. It’s not too late and you are not too old, Rilke said (in German it’s “Noch bist du nicht kalt, und es ist nicht zu spät”). It’s true — I want a lot (du seihst, ich will viel) — perhaps I want everything.

Some days we get to want everything, with the ache that longing brings, and the joy.

Du siehst, ich will viel
Rainer Maria Rilke

Du siehst, ich will viel.
Vielleicht will ich Alles:
das Dunkel jedes unendlichen Falles
und jedes Steigens lichtzitterndes Spiel.

Es leben so viele und wollen nichts,
und sind durch ihres leichten Gerichts
glatte Gefühle gefürstet.

Aber du freust dich jedes Gesichts,
das dient und dürstet.

Du freust dich Aller, die dich gebrauchen
wie ein Gerät.

Noch bist du nicht kalt, und es ist nicht zu spät,
in deine werdenden Tiefen zu tauchen,
wo sich das Leben ruhig verrät.

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything:
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.

So many live on and want nothing,
and are raised to the rank of prince
by the slippery ease of their light judgments.

But what you love to see are faces
that do work and feel thirst.

You love most of all those who need you
as they need a crowbar or a hoe.

You have not grown old, and it is not too late
to dive into your increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secret.

from The Book of the Hours
(translated by Robert Bly)

Thanks for all you’ve carried forward into today, all the wanting, all the hope, all the dreams. Thanks for allowing yourself to set some of it down. And thanks for picking some of it back up, giving yourself bits and swells of something you always wanted. Thanks for your words today. I mean it.

but san francisco doesn’t care

Stencil graffiti on a cement wall; two figures, both standing at garbage cans. One, labeled Good morning, good morning. It’s good here today — quiet, dark. How is the morning finding you today?

When I came down to the writing space yesterday morning, there was a small light already illuminating the room. I’d left the 7-day votive burning from the day before. Usually I light it for the writing time and then blow it out when I’m done, but that morning I shut the case on the computer when I’d finished typing and I hustled upstairs to let Sophie out, to get the day going. I’d moved the candle to the mantle behind me, next to my postcards and pictures, the bulletin board loaded with bits of paper, right in front of the prayer flags — everything flammable at the very least. As I stood there in the doorway, looking at the small flame making circles on the mantle, on the ceiling, I felt deeply grateful that it, that I, hadn’t burned the room, the house. I walked over, moved the candle from the mantle to my desk — even after burning for 24 hours, I could still pick up the top of the glass with my hand and move it to the desktop — and then I sat in my rocking chair for a few minutes and said some thanks.

Things could have gone differently and they didn’t and I am grateful. I just say thanks, as much as I remember to do it, all day long. Not because I think anyone’s listening, but because it shifts my presence in the world, my sense of being. Nothing is granted, nothing is a given. Everything could be different. So I say thanks for the cup of tea, thanks for the clothes I can wear, thanks for the fact of the hummingbird coming to check out the new feeder, thanks for the sunset.

Once again, these days, I go into San Francisco for work. Four days a week, into downtown, past the folks shooting up at Civic Center station, then up into the twitter folks wandering around in their thin expensive tshirts and shiny shoes, grown men on skateboards and young women still having to act like they’re impressed by it all. I walk past the encampments on the corners and the old man standing with his hand out on the corner of 9th and Mission, his hair long to his shoulders, clothes loose, his body a permanent question mark, spare change, spare change, spare change. His is a mantra, his song, his breath. I haven’t put money in his hands, and I wonder if anyone does. I make eye contact when I say no, though. Does it matter that I try to make human contact when I am still denying him what he needs? The need is so great all around the city, around the Bay Area, all the way across these just three blocks from the BART station to my office: open hands, cups shaking their bits of change, men playing instruments in the station — they bring amps and a box for bills. There is a woman who stands at the top of the stairs at Market and 8th. She just stands there, leaning on her walker. I don’t see her asking for money, I don’t see her seeking any particular kind of attention. She just stands there, watching the flood of people heading down into the mouth of the terminal, leaving work. I am one of that flood.

We are fish, we are a flock of seagulls, we are lemmings headed over the cliff and we think we have done something that day, we got a job, we sat at a desk and answered phones, we looked at a screen, we answered an email, we sent somebody something they needed and in exchange, we take home money, someone gives us money. The transaction has more middlemen but is not, in essence, different from that the man on the corner is seeking, or the man in the Civic Center BART station playing his guitar and singing and I wanted to sit and listen to him, his voice a lyre, his voice a rough panel under bare feet, his guitar a song in the morning — he was someone ought to get paid to play in a club, on a stage, but he is sitting cross-legged on the floor of the station and when I take out a couple dollars to give him, I notice there’s no money in his guitar case, and wonder if maybe he’s not doing it for money, I lean in and say, are you taking donations? and he laughs a kind of sharp thing he says, yes, yes, thanks for getting me started, and I see that I am the first to offer appreciation this way. There is the man with the saxophone, and the bald guitarist who likes to patter with all the passers by, all of us rushing, clotted in our headphones, we just want to get through it, we want to get home. I put myself now in the land of this other we, when it’s all just a different sort of hustle, we’re all in our hustle, some of us have it easier. It’s not that different from standing on the street asking someone to put something in my palm. Well, of course it’s different, but can you see the ways that it’s the same”?

I walk past clots of people passed out in the station, watch a woman push a needle into a man’s neck. It’s not that I don’t know it happens, but that it feels dangerous to me, maybe just that I am scared. Scared of what it means that this is happening out in the open, scared of what it says about our city, the violence of poverty and homelessness, what a violence, to know that just above you is one of the richest companies in the world and yet you still can’t get a place to live, still you have to do your drugs in the street. Let’s not pretend like the twitterites, the business people, we who have our dayjobs and dress like respectable somebodies, let’s not pretend that we don’t have our own addictions — we just have private places in which to indulge them, like we also have private places to piss and shit and have sex.

What has happened to this city that was supposed to be about love and sharing? This season there’ve been all kinds of remembrances of the summer of love. It feels like adding insult to injury.

When I say the city doesn’t feel safe, it’s not because of the junkies, the homeless men, the the screamers, it’s because of the money — the moneyed people who have pushed into this one last place that was supposed to be a haven for the poor, a place where poor folks could at least find shelter, food, resources. The companies come in because real estate is cheap and then push out the folks who have been living there for years, folks who were already on their last legs, already at the end of their rope. The companies come in and cut the rope.

Today I will bring change for the man with the open hands, and I will say thank you, and he will not acknowledge me, because that is not his job. His job is to ask and ask and ask and ask, to stand at the corner of money and access and put out his hands and hope that some little bit of it comes his way. When I get into San Francisco today, I will go to the Civic Center farmer’s market in order to remember why I used to love the city. I will buy lemons and a sweet potato hand pie from the dark man with the light eyes who flirts with me, flirts with all of us, because that’s how the work gets done, it’s part of his hustle. Every one of these sellers is in their hustle, as are most of us walking through. The gig economy is nothing new — there’s no one not gigging, no one not hustling, just some of us are compensated better for it, and not for any good reason. There’s no reason the man on the street isn’t getting paid like the man in the casual urban outfitters twitter uniform — that twitter guy couldn’t last a thirty minutes on the corner with his hands out, asking for money, asking to be seen, asking to be acknowledged, and getting ignored hour after hour after hour.

I don’t know what I have to give with this today. Maybe just deep grief, disappointment in San Francisco, the kind of ache you feel when you loved someone with everything in you and then it hurt you in places you hadn’t known you could be hurt, and the only reason you got hurt that way is that you were so open, you were all hope and wonder and delight and everything about them brought forth a yes in you. And then things happen that slowly reveal who they really are, and you keep taking them back, giving them chance after chance after chance. San Francisco broke my heart years ago, and still I keep coming back, in spite of the violence there — not the guns, not the drugs, but the rents, the cost of a cup of tea, the cost of butter. The way the city tells you, tells me, over and over, oh honey, you’re so cute — did you really think you were gonna belong here? and then tosses her bougainvillea pashmina over her shoulder and turns back to the one buying her drinks now.

Wasn’t this the city that was supposed to be about open arms, the haven for the broken and the queer and the weird and the artist, the haven for the creative soul, the mecca? Not anymore. Maybe, really, not ever. Maybe always only for some.

So I climb up out of the Civic Center station and I blink into the bright weird fog sun and I turn down 8th into the wind, just to get away from the fresh-faced techies and the tourists on Market Street, and I say into the hard wind, I hate you San Francisco. but San Francisco doesn’t care.

Thanks for your words today, whatever form they take, whether on the page or just mumbled while you wander across McAllister up into the Tenderloin. Be easy with you today, ok?

what if everything’s ok even though a bad thing’s happened?

Full color graffiti painted on a cement wall next to some stairs and a patch of grass; graffiti is a dog's face looking out at the viewerIt’s morning again on a Monday. I feel like an addict who’s had a week clean, proclaiming I did it! I’m back on the wagon! now that I managed to get up early today after not needing alarms on Sat or Sun. Just keep going, Jen.

This weekend was a fun and energetic Writing the Flood on Saturday, and then yesterday I had a day at home in the sun. Last night, E and I made dinner and played cribbage out on the deck while the sun sank down over the mountains,  and then we came downstairs and watched tv and then I let Sophie out back to go pee and she took off like a shot after a noise under the deck and while I was busy yelling frantically at her to come back, she was getting sprayed by a skunk. As soon as she came back around the corner of the deck, I raced inside and slammed the door shut behind me, trying to keep the smell out. I gathered up all the things we needed — dish soap, peroxide, baking soda, Nature’s Miracle Skunk Odor Remover — while E soothed Sophie through the closed door.

It’s an intimate thing, getting skunk smell off a dog, especially one you love. I went back outside, knelt down, and got my face down near Sophie, sniffing around her face, neck, ears, trying to locate just where the smell is worst. This time, I think Sophie mostly got it in the mouth, poor thing. There’s a whole precise formula for the peroxide-dish soap – baking soda skunk smell remover, but I wasn’t really up for looking up something on my phone. It’s a race against time when she’s been sprayed — I have the idea that the faster I get it off, the less bad it will be.

That’s true for most wounds or spills or difficulties of any kind — the sooner you deal with it, the less there will be that lingers for hours or days or years, the less likely you’ll have a permanent stain or scar, right?

I dumped the bottle of peroxide (it was maybe a half or three-fifths full), a bunch of baking soda, and a big squirt of dish soap into a container, put on the lid and shook the whole mixture up, then dumped it on the places where I thought were the most skunked. Most of the skunk removal solutions say not to get in the mouth or eyes, so it’s a tricky business, given that, in this case, I was trying to get the smell out of the fur around her mouth. I spread the solution around her muzzle and then hold her mouth closed gently so that she doesn’t lick it all up (or, frankly, so as to minimize the licking).

I read somewhere that water makes the skunk smell set, so I apply the Nature’s Miracle, and then rub a bunch of plain baking soda all over the parts I think might have skunk smell on them — at this point, it’s a little bit like throwing the whole pot of spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks, just throwing everything I’ve got at the problem and hoping something works. Sophie stands mostly still and shaking — less from the attack or the cool of the evening and more, I think, from my angry, frantic, panicked energy.

While she were sitting for a few minutes, after I got her all coated with various smell-removing pastes and enzymes, I thought, Why does this freak me out so much? Is here any reason to get so agitated, like something really bad has happened– or something really bad is about to happen, like I’m about to get in trouble if I don’t get this smell out right away and keep it out of the house. I’m 45 years old. Who’s going to get me in trouble now?

And though I’m sure it’s no fun getting sprayed — she almost always gets it in her eye! — I think the thing that’s the most traumatic for Sophie after she’s been skunked is my frenetic, stressed-out energy. Dogs are so sensitive — they pick up on our emotional changes, our illnesses and worries, they know when we are happy and they know when we are not and they respond accordingly. She wants to do what’s right, she wants to do what I want her to do, and she doesn’t know what that is, and here I am, taking in a loud voice that’s angry and scared and rubbing her hard and getting stuff in her eyes and then making her sleep in the garage after spraying her with cold water from the hose.

My point is, and maybe I’ve come to this realization before, there’s no ned to panic the way that I do. The fear is that there’s going to be a smell in the house, and my partner will get mad (I don’t mean my current partner in particular — I mean any partner, for this part of my trauma brain) and Sophie will have to go and I’ll still be in trouble for letting her bring smell in, for us having a dog at all, for ruining furniture or clothes or rug or whatever gets smell in it —

This is an old fear, and how can it not be connected to the memory of my first dog being sent away because my stepfather no longer liked the fact that, when he kept her in the basement for 8 or 10 hours a day, she’d pee and poop in there. How surprising. He didn’t like the fact that she was a dog, didn’t like the fact that she’s was a living being that needed care, certainly didn’t like the fact that she was my companion. So, he had me take her in to the pound and leave her there. I wrote about this memory again this weekend, coincidentally — it’s one of those parts of the story of my adolescence that will maybe never stop making me cry like it’s just happening, like it’s still happening, like some part of the young adult me is still standing in that dim room in front of the desk at the Omaha Humane Society, watching a volunteer in a uniform polo shirt walk my dog away from me, into the kennels, where she is almost certain to be killed in a week (they had a one-week deadline for dogs to be adopted or they’d be euthanized) because she’s eight years old and not well trained and has fatty tumors and has mostly been kept in the basement her whole life — potential new families were not, I was sure, going to see beyond all that to her sweet energy and her protectiveness and her loving nature.

As an adult who’s had other dogs, I know all the things I did wrong with her, but she and I were both living under the fist of this man who wanted everything to be awful for everyone, and so she had to die. And the guilt and shame live in my muscles and bones. I still cry at the thought of her waiting there for me, not understanding what was going on. She’d been kenneled before when we went out of town, and we had always come back. We had always come back. I torture myself with the idea of her waiting for me, that time, to come back, too. And then I didn’t.

Every time I leave the house now, or leave Sophie anywhere, I say, I’ll be back, just for this reason. Because of the time that I couldn’t come back, couldn’t go back. I say it for Sophie, but mostly, I say it for me. This time, I’ll be back.

So of course I am frantic when something goes wrong with the dog — some place inside still terrified that if we don’t do everything just right, we’ll be kicked out. She’ll be kicked out.

Meanwhile, last night, E was up in the garage, making a bed for Sophie out of towels, setting out food and water and a soft light and a little music on the radio, making a comfortable place for her to spend the night while the smell abated. Nothing about E’s energy was conveying anything but support and love.

What if we could do the deskunking without all the frantic spinning? What would that be like for Sophie, and for me, and for the memory of the dog I couldn’t save? What if everything’s ok even though a bad thing’s happened?

I’ll go out today and get her a new collar, because the other one is all skunk now. I’ll buy more Nature’s Miracle and peroxide and baking soda, just to be prepared for the next time. You just have to be prepared for the next time, ready for the thing that works. You just have to know it’s going to happen and then do your best to make sure that it doesn’t. That’s living as an adult, I guess, isn’t it? No more magical thinking, and no more living in terror of someone with all the power over you forcing you to be someone you’re not.

Thanks for being on the other side of this today. Thank you for reading, and for all the ways you are undoing, every day, bit by bit, the old lessons that you learned so hard, that you were taught so violently. Thank you for your patience with yourself, and for your generosity with those you love — animal and human both. Thank you, of course, for your words.

we are almost always something else outside the day job

Sticker graffiti of an old-style typewriter, out of which emerges a piece of paper on which are typed the words,

Good morning, good morning.  It’s cold cold cold here. I’m in a sweatshirt and scarf and almost ready to turn the space heater on. July 14, and it’s in the 50s. Welcome to sunny California. Today I’m missing those humid midwest summers, sticky and hot, cicadas throbbing in the trees, sweaty glass of iced tea in hand, standing in front of the fan trying to cool off. (Let it get hot here, though, and I’ll start complaining about that…)

Ok, so it’s Friday. I hide the candle behind the computer because it’s too bright for my tired, early morning eyes. During the sun salutation this morning I held the plank for a minute, and it was all I could do not to just lower myself down to the floor, fold my arms under my head, and go back to sleep.

Is today when I could write about the day job?

Fit on the basket, make a new hope, a new home. Nurture what the morning calls, the dancing birds, the playful dose, the thing that wants to dive into nowhere, the thing that says yes. I look around inside for the thing that wants to be free, or wants to be caged, depending on which way you look. I have the heart open, I have the world on a string.  This is the backhand dance.

A little more than a month ago, I signed on as a program coordinator at a small local private college. Taking a day job again means a regular paycheck, sure. It also means structure and focus, means that I have to reschedule my heart.

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my best learning has happened everywhere except the classroom

Mural on the side of a building, showing a person holding a book in front of their face; their eyes are visible over the book and look out at the viewer. Hair is blue like a river and filled with symbols. Behind the person is a forest of decorated tree trunks and tropical foliage. Above the person are the words Good morning, good morning.

Outside the sun is up the no the light is up but the day is still grey the morning is still all grey fog. I can’t see the bay, can’t even see to the edge of the water.

This morning the birds didn’t get me out of bed right away. They told me about the secrets at dawn, but I was already sleeping again. Second alarm, snooze, ok, fine, I’m up, I’m up.

Each day I type the date at the header of these  morning writes, and for most of this week, I’ve wanted to type 15 instead of 17 for the year. What is that telling me? That I want to go back to the beginning, back to the start of school, back to before school started?

I’m not sure what school is teaching me. I’m two-thirds of my way through my MFA program, and coming out of a year which ended with me feeling completely demoralized, disconnected from writing and from writing community. This is the opposite of what an MFA program is supposed to do, I think. Isn’t it? The faculty in our program keep going off to other opportunities — fellowships, sabbaticals — which makes for not a terribly stable academic home. I make a connection with someone and then they’re gone for a semester or a year or for good…what’s going on here?

And then last year I did a lot of work toward a certificate proclaiming me qualified to teach composition to college students, four courses in composition theory and practice. Something about these classes left me numb and despondent. Something left me feeling like I didn’t belong. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that something is.

(It wasn’t just that these classes were all group work all the time, which is a thing I want to talk about: this trend now to have all students work together, assuming that we are all extroverts who do our best learning when we’re processing things aloud with someone else; the introverts among us, who were happy with the working alone at our desks and thinking things to ourselves happy to listen to lectures (well, maybe not all introverts were happy listening to lectures — myself, I am mostly glad to listen to the most educated-in-the-subject-in-the-room speak for awhile during class about this subject they’ve studied enough to be able to teach), but lectures are out of favor now, and individual classwork is out of favor. What’s in favor is having students work together, jigsaw reading assignments, group projects, and, I dunno — are you a big fan of group projects in class? I’m not. It’s not that I dislike my classmates or that I dislike talking about what it is we’re studying, but that I don’t think as well, or create as well, when I have to sit in a room full of ongoing conversation — not just the conversation in my little small group, my pair or triad or whatever, but all the rest in the class going on simultaneously as well — and come up with innovative ideas or responses to a question or problem. This way of asking students to think under constant distraction, it doesn’t work for me as a student. As a professor, of course, it makes for a lot less work — I don’t have to lead lecture, I don’t have to lead discussion, I don’t have to do nearly as much to prepare for class or to keep the class running.

Maye I’m too old-school. Maybe if you’re raised doing school this way, you get good at it. Maybe this is an old-dog-new-tricks situation.)

Anyway — there’s something else that I’ve been trying to understand, trying to get my finger on. What it was about these classes, the teahing-composition classes, that left me feeling sick and sad? There was something about how we talked about writing and writers in these classes, a hostile, even adversarial, tone around student writers and student writing — even though I was working with professors who are all progressive in their thinking about teaching college/academic writing to students, who don’t come from the get-the-grammar-right-make-sure-the-surface-is-pretty-I-don’t-want-to-see-any-errors school of thought, who make fun of the five paragraph essay as hopelessly regressive and useless, who are open to different forms and ways of learning but who, of course, still want to see “good” writing from their students, but cannot say what “good” writing is.

It was a weird and subtle sense of superiority I sensed in a number of my classes — something about the vibe was the opposite of what I felt when I was training to become a workshop facilitator with Pat Schneider, and maybe this goes to why Pat’s work, the AWA method, is so revolutionary. In that training, we were all encouraged to think of ourselves as entering into a relationship and deep connection with the writers in our groups. We learned how to co-create a space in which powerful writing could emerge, in which new writing could flow; we learned how to hold a container, a way of being and thinking about writing. And we facilitators were meant to be a part of the space, a writer among writers, not separate, not “the teacher,” not better or other.

Maybe that’s the sickness I felt, a cognitive dissonance, coming as I am from an embodied understanding of writing, of how writing can be facilitated and “taught,” when I returned to the classroom with the idea that I’d learn how to teach (academic) writing the “right” way. Something in me still believed that the other way, the way in front of the classroom with chalkboard and sentence diagrams (I can’t help it, I loved sentence diagrams), was the right way to teach writing, that it was better for folks who wanted to learn how to write in and for The Academy. Something in me still privileged classroom learning over anything else — even though my best learning has happened everywhere except the classroom.

As an AWA-trained writing group facilitator, I had learned another way, a different way of conceiving of the practice of writing and the product of writing, than what we were learning in school. In my composition classes, there’s a lot of talk, and I think authentic talk, about wanting students to focus more on writing as a process, of learning that the process of writing is multi-stage, multi-phasic, of being not an orderly progression from idea to brainstorming to writing introduction body conclusion revise to correct grammar errors done, but instead something much wilder, something that flows from idea to jotting down thoughts to revising some of thoughts to more brainstorming to sketching out a possible outline and writing some body paragraphs and revising those and then coming up with a good conclusion and only after all that’s done getting the idea for the introduction to having to revise one of the core ideas and having to begin again — my instructors want us to convey this idea of writing to our students, but still we had to come back to the end product, the thing that needs to be graded and show improvement.

By the end of my year of composition classes, I was sure that I didn’t have what it takes to teach composition to undergraduates, if the sort of classroom I experienced was the sort of classroom I was expected to lead. I still don’t know what a fucking PIE paragraph is, and I certainly don’t want to learn how to teach someone else what it was. Here I thought I could have been helpful in the classroom, inviting new college students to explore their many writing voices, the many ways they might communicate a thought or idea, inviting us into reading together and alone. But the classroom that I learned about in my teaching-composition classes is one fraught with demands, the demands on the teacher to produce students who produce “good work.” The process of teaching isn’t really what we discussed. Maybe that’s some of the disconnect I felt. We were so focused on helping students to understand the process of writing, but we didn’t talk or think or practice or feel our way into the practice of teaching. We focused on the product — the student writing— that is, the piece of writing produced by the student, not the student in the process/practice of writing.

I learned to write by reading and emulating what I read, by reading widely and discovering all the different ways that writing could look, the different forms writing could take. Gloria Anzaldúa, for instance, blew my mind and writing right open, taught me about the lyric/hybrid essay, taught me about multi-linguistic writing, taught me about writing that could contain multiple genres, poetic academic essay. Frankly, if I ever get the chance to teach academic writing in the classroom, that’s the sort of thing I’d like to see the students take on. I want to see mess and play, critical thinking in all its many creative manifestations.

How can we create learning spaces, especially around writing, that students don’t have to spend the rest of their lives trying to forget or unlearn, that don’t leave students feeling less-than or fundamentally bad or wrong?

There’s more to this thinking, more that I’m trying to unravel after this last year in school. I’m grateful for the break, grateful to have this space to try and figure things out, grateful that you’re there and reading, grateful for all the writing you do, too, the ways you teach and learn, the ways you model and construct.

And, of course, I’m always grateful for your words.  

asking once was already too many times

Black-and-white sticker art of a young person on a tricycle with a small animal in the tricycle's basket and a bird nested on the young person's headGood morning, good morning. Is the sun up where you are yet? Here it’s all fog and hush.

There is still a cereal bowl in the bathroom. Don’t ask me what a cereal bowl is doing in the bathroom. Did someone eat cereal while going to the bathroom, or while walking into the bathroom or…? I can’t answer. What I can say is that it’s been there now for about 30 hours, 36, and in that time, more people than me have been into the bathroom and seen the bowl with a spoon resting inside it and bits of cereal stuck to the sides. But I seem to be the only person who cares about it. I am certainly the only person obsessing about it. I mentioned it yesterday morning — please have him bring his bowl from the bathroom to the kitchen to the dishwasher — and also last night — go get that bowl and bring it to the dishwasher, while you’re loading it up after dinner. But still the bowl still sits in the bathroom, on the sink next to the toilet.

It’s not the cereal bowl, understand. it’s what it represents.

This is the work of the trauma survivor stepparentish figure. There’s no name in our culture for what I am here. Not stepmom — that’s not what I want to be. I don’t want that word. I’m mom’s girlfriend. Just Jen. I have the feelings and fears and urges of someone who stands in what seems to be the role of a parent, but I don’t have the responsibility or the space to act on them— what I mean is, I am not the parent here. I am not ever the parent here.

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keep the problem open, she said

Street art image of a young white woman holding a stenciled poster which reads “As long as I have questions and no answers, I’ll keep writing” – Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star (Benjamin Moser, trans.)

What can I tell you about what’s happening right now? The alarm goes off at 4:30 and I’m up, even though I couldn’t get to sleep for what felt like hours last night, my heart racing racing: we thought it was a good idea to watch the first episode of the latest season of Orange is the New Black just before bed. Not really the best idea. My heart is pounding again just thinking about it  — with rage, with anticipation, with fear, with hope, with adrenaline. Mostly with adrenaline Most tv these days seems designed to fill us with as much adrenaline as possible for as long as possible. I said, my head under the pillow, from the sleep-not-sleep-if-I-don’t-sleep-how-am-I-gonna-get-up-at-4:30 place, I said, Let’s not watch this right before bed anymore. And she said, from under her pillow, Right.

But I managed to get to sleep at some point because then the birds were waking me up upaand they were on my phone. I have the candle now, the tea the quiet place in the basement with the ticking clock. No birds outside yet. Yesterday evening Sophie and I stood at attention as something awful-sounding happened with the turkeys up the hill. First there was a loud vocal noise — of fear? of anger? of consternation or seduction? — and then a great deal of rustling in the dry leaves. We stood at attention and stared. At one point we could see (I assume she could also see) a few big birds, wings out and spread, in silhouette through a break in the trees, the setting sun illuminating the glossy green live oak leaves and the dusky brown of the hillside but not the birds themselves, but then they hustled back into the forest itself, and the rest of the noise was obscured by trees. Overhead a handful of crows played upside-down-in-the-air touch football or something, and a couple hummingbirds dive-bombed the bottlebrush tree at the edge of our yard. This is a bird place for sure. The chickadees and titmice were noisy in the nighttime the evening trees, oaks, and I looked around for deer but couldn’t see any hidden in the thoroughfare just beneath our yard, the fat row of trees and space between us and the backside of the condo complex below.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. What feels good is writing here, is being at this quiet desk, is letting my fingers remember themselves onto the keys, is remembering how to just keep writing, keep typing, forget about spelling write right or going back to fix typos or make sense of anything that the words are trying to do with your hands here. I do sun salutations while waiting for the water to boil – my body tight, not used to stretching, I let my arms hang slack and then twist from side to side, hands hit the sides of my body, hit at kidney and butt, the way Alex showed me. The other day we stopped by the old neighborhood and I stole a couple of branches from two of the plants I’d started there — the native geranium and the copper creek marigold, which the latter of which had flushed out beautifully. Right now the cuttings are in a Ball jar in the kitchen, and I run my fingers along their different leaves, the thick fuzz of the geranium, the fluttery thin filagree of the marigold, and bring their different and combined scents on my fingers up to smell, then rub behind my ears with the idea that I’m giving myself a little good perfume. Recently I bought some rose geranium soap, to have a little aromatherapy in the shower — what was it they said about geranium scent? I’ll have to look it up. Either way, it makes me feel better to smell it, to bring that aroma into my body.

There are the birds waking up here’s me been awake for an hour already and the sun hasn’t yet brought any bright to the sky yet. The fog will be thick between here and the golden gate bridge. At some point, once the sun’s up, you can look out and see a fait faint separation between ground and sky, the fog coating the mountains and bridge and the fog filling the air above, the marine layer they call it, right, thats the one above, but at first it’s just all a single mass of grey and cloud and thick and wet that clots the bay and dusts everything with seasalt and morning.

That quote from Clarice Lispector, that’s what I wanted to write into this morning: As long as I have questions and no answers, I’ll keep writing. Is that what stopped me up a year or more ago? Filled up with answers and all the answers were no – no hope, no change, no possibility. I thought about the way I’ve been thinking about men recently, about masculinity and manhood. it’s true that after I got out of my last relationship I had a dim view of masculinity, the way masculinity and the acquisition of such has taken up so much space in our various queer community/-ies — the way the search for masculinity gets to be the excuse for all sorts of bad behavior, and for treating the feminine like a rag with which to wipe off a shoe or clean up come, you know. And then there’s the rest of the men. Cisgendered millennial men wish, it seems, to recreate the world of Mad Men and Wolves of Wall Street for themselves (lest they be left out of the full promise of patriarchy, god forbid).

I think I’ve been in an answered place for a long time now — and just kept getting hammered down with more answers: The world wasn’t going to change. Men were going to keep on using women and children for their sexual gratification and domination needs, no matter what we did, no matter how we grew and raged and fought back, no matter how much we “educated,” calmly explaining that, no, we didn’t want to be harassed on the street, no, thank you, we didn’t want to be raped today just because we asked for some money to support our growing business or because we were a student in their class or because we were an employee in their company or because we walked past them on the street and smiled or didn’t smile or wore clothes or had legs and breasts and a body or because we were their child or their girlfriend’s child or because we were a child in their parish or because we shared an opinion online (note! initial image at this page is likely triggering) or because or because or because— no, thank you, you know what? we don’t want to be raped today. Are you educated about this yet? Have we held enough classes and trainings?

So I had some answers — or I thought I did — and I got stuck in them.

I turned to the bread, the sourdough starter, the seeds in dirt, the garden, which are all question, all wonder, all what’s going to happen next? People were giving too many answers. I needed to get away from them. Social media, the whole fucking Internet is filled with answers–every post, every tweet, a declarative sentence, a statement, a knowing, a surety, an answer pounded with a fist into a table. There is no room for conversation in a place, within a room or inside a body, that’s all answers and no questions.

Keep the problem open, read a sticky note that I used to keep next to my bed back when I was at Hedgebrook, a piece of advice offered by Priscilla Long one night at dinner. Keep the problem open, she said, challenging the prevailing blogging culture that encourages short posts with pithy answers. Don’t think you have any answer at all. The answer stops the writing.

Questions and curiosity are what drive me to sit down at the page, the notebook, this keyboard, and ease my way into words.  Question is vulnerability and uncertainty. Question is openness, the soft belly of wonder, the tenderness of curiosity, the lack of a hard outer shell that makes fun of everything that isn’t ironic and joking, isn’t seeded with hatred and fear.

With only answers in front and inside of me, I couldn’t write. I didn’t feel drawn to write, I mean. It’s not so much that I was blocked if I sat down at the notebook, but that I didn’t want to spend time with the answers I’d been filed with. These were answers of despair, of hopelessness and depression, of the inability to change, learn, grow, hope, wonder, want. These were the answers of lack and of no. These were the answers of it’s never going to get any better and those in power are never going to give it up and we who haven’t had power aren’t going to take whats rightfully ours or demand that they quit treating us like meat to be fucked at their leisure.

What room is there in such an answer for poetry, for story, for fiction, for imagination, for wondering? Who wants to wonder into such a thing?

Maybe the garden and the bread, the dog and the birds, have helped me back into questions again. Maybe time away from social media has eased me out of the idea that the only way to participate is to Have The Answers, to use a voice that is sure of itself and clear, that doesn’t ask, that gives only a list of ten ways why every ally is an enemy, why you are fucking up your social justice work, why those who don’t think exactly like we do are capital-w Wrong, why this or that or the other group is making a mistake and has to change now, why we are going to fail at anything we try.

The people in power, if course, want us to have these sort of bleak answers, Hopelessness is easier to control than a hope that is reaching for change, that believes in a positive change, that seeks wonder, that is curious and slippery and aching with desire, that sees something new for our children and their children, and even for ourselves and those we love right now. When there are questions there are still possibilities for something new — something heretofore unimagined, something beautiful — to emerge, damp and glistening with seasalt and morning, quivering under our fingers, just ready to take its first breath.

Thank you for all the questions you are still asking, still allowing yourself to ask, still inhaling and exhaling, still writing into. Thank you, today and always, for your words.

sometimes it takes the heart of a dragon

graffiti of a red heart with veins emerging; inside are the words Good morning, good morning. How’s this day where you are?

I manage to get up when the alarm first goes off before 5. I hit snooze, set the phone back down on the table, put my head back down on the pillow, but I was awake. These words pushing through me every waking: The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you — when did I stop listening?

Outside it’s still dark, the birds are still asleep.

Do I remember how to type this early, type to make my fingers work at just 5am? I’m working myself back toward this early morning schedule, this no one moving anywhere this schedule, this I am alone, free to let whatever words flow that want to, schedule.

The sound of the clock thick in my ears, the one I bought for my little office in the Flood building, the one that kept the pace for me there. That was 10 years ago. In ten years, I rose and fell and disappeared. That’s what it feels like.

I feel outside the thing that time makes of me.

I’ve been reading books in translation — Mexican, French, Brazilian, German — books written in in the 30s, 70s, 80s. What am I looking for except some distance from my own situation, the possibility that other kinds of writing can be acceptable, the possibility that my writing will be wanted somewhere. I’ve had a lot of rejection recently. Since before starting school, I wanted to crack the literary journal market, to try and figure it out. So I send the work out, into the ether, I send it via submittible or email, I study the submission guidelines, write up my brief cover letters, use the same mode and method that served me so well when I was mainly submitting to anthologies, but no one is biting. Rejection after rejection, all form letters, all impersonal, all no.

It’s part of the game, the business. It’s part of what you have to get good at as a so-called professional writer, Jen, is being rejected. I tell myself this over and over, the good parent in my head, the business woman or whatever, the thing that has to sing the song of making sense, but I still get stung, feel less-than, thought that the book being accepted by a publisher meant that something had changed. And of course it does mean that. But I’m still playing by he same rules as everybody else — the rules of subjectivity and vice.

I fill the teacup, I move the candle to obscure the growing light, to keep the room darker longer, I don’t want the morning to rise yet. I just now found the dark I’ve been looking for.

Outside the garden is blossoming, and I am learning its fertility and dead zones, its quiet places, the stuff it hides and how it dazzles. The birds find their way to our feeders and we are getting to know each other. Sophie plays chicken with the wild turkeys, with the jays and crows that want to steal her kibble, with the California towhees that hop around like enormous mice.

I read Helene Cixous’s Coming to Writing, I read Clarice Lispector, I read books originally conceived of in languages I cannot speak. The idea that different possibility erupts that way, the idea that the language creates room for the thought, that there are ways of expressing and thinking and conceiving of the world that I cannot even imagine because I am in only this one language, this solid English brain, and of course even in translation I miss so much.

The depression lifts, moves around, resettles itself within me differently, but while it’s standing up to shake itself off, I can dance a little, I can breathe, I can see things better. I have a little more energy, strength, and manage to send off another submission. Tell myself it will probably be rejected — sour grapes do their work for us sometimes, protecting us from hurt we expect is on the way. The Sun says no; brand-new, just-launching journals say no; Modern Love says no. Fiction, poems, essays get rejected. I send them out again. Sometimes right away, but rarely. Usually I have to tuck in and lick my wounds for awhile. Soak in the self-pity, in the sense that everyone else can get published, just not me, I am doing something wrong. I don’t have the right voice, the right message, the right whatever all the editors are looking for. I know it’s subjective, but seriously: if all the readers who look at a thing say no, is the universe trying to give you a larger objective message?

So then you tell yourself the stories about the impossibly successful books that had to be submitted 10, 20, 80 times. Take a deep breath, just keep going, send it out again.

I take the essays to workshop and am told, Send it out. This is done. I think, it’s been rejected so much, it must need more work. But the feedback is something else. Puffed up, I send it out to a new journal, the one that liked lyric work, experimental stuff, wants to see something new and exciting.  Then the pin in the balloon: No, thanks, we got so many exciting and interesting submissions, can’t give personal responses to them all, please don’t take this as a reflection on your work, good luck to you, la la la. I send the work out to anthologies, contests, judged by women writers I admire, whose work has inspired me, thinking that they will be able to see the thing in my work that those other (straight, white, male) editors have missed. That’s the ticket. More rejection. No, no, no.

I suppose the thing that’s in me right now is that rejection is fucking hard and disappointing and hurts. Every time it’s something personal, it’s something in me, that’s been denied or rejected, it’s something of me being turned back, that’s not worthy of appreciation.

Yes, I know that’s not true. Yes, I remember the rules: We are not our writing, the writing is a separate thing, we are worthy and loveable and good even when an editor says no to our work.

And even as my adult brain tells my writing brain all these truths, still I nurse the ache, and it takes time for the ache to abate enough that I’m ready to send this piece of writing out again.

Some people are able to do it differently. Some people are able to separate themselves from the work, from the writing, their worth from whether or not their words are accepted by anyone else. They have their systems, their lists of venues and publications, their stacks of addressed envelopes (or did, once upon a time, now it’s just an excel spreadsheet with editor’s names and email addresses), and when a piece is returned rejected, they turn right around, open the spreadsheet, make a note of the rejection, highlight the next line on the list, open a new email message and cop in and update the cove r letter, and send it out again. don’t’ let it lie on the desk, literally or metaphorically, gathering dust. Send it send it send it. let it find its way into the right hands.

When you are raised or spend any significant part of your life being groomed and trained to believe that others’ opinions of you are more important than your own, are the most important thing, this rejection part of the writing job is maybe a little more difficult.

It takes the heart of a dragon to do it–to be a writer. Fortunately, we trauma survivors are the epitome of dragon-hearted, we fire-breathing, scale-adorned and jewel-bedecked beings, and when I remember that, I snort a laugh that incinerates the most recent rejection note, then unfurl my wings and take off again. Sit down at the notebook, the keyboard again, write some more, send it off, one more try.

Thank you for those dragon’s wings you wear, for the words you sing as you soar above or whisper as you nestle in your cave. For all the words within you, I am grateful. 

the fissures will crumble the wall someday

graffiti image of a young white girl in a pink dress frisking a male soldier (who has his hands up against the wall, his back to the girl)The fog has baked off already — it’s just a cottony grey rim along the coast. The birds have finally discovered the feeders I put out a couple of weeks ago, and they’re jockeying for position, seniority, the most seeds.

I watched the movie Spotlight this weekend with my sweetheart’s brother’s family. Her cousin was one of the members of the Spotlight team who investigated and finally brought the story of long-term church cover-up of abuse and pedophilia in the Boston diocese, by Cardinal Law and others. After it was over, my sweetheart said, “Do you think it’s still going on, that sort of covering-up?” Someone else asked another question immediately or made another comment and the conversation went in another direction. I’d sat there in silence for a moment after she asked anyway. I couldn’t imagine that she really believed that maybe it wasn’t just the same all over the world. My immediate answer would have been loud and definitive, maybe discomfortingly so, the way I can get: Of course it’s still going on–in the church, in private homes, in other places of worship, in just about any institution you can imagine in which adults have power over the bodies of others, adults are abusing that power and then pretending like they didn’t do anything wrong or calling the children crazy or engaging in wishful thinking when the children try to tell someone what’s been done to them, or acting like it’s their right to take whatever they want whenever they want, like, say, our troll-in-chief has a habit of doing.

But there was something else that got me thinking after the movie was over. There were people, those higher up at the Globe and those working for or still supporting the church, who were worried about interrupting the work of the church, worried about this story somehow breaking the church in the eyes of the people. But that didn’t happen. Not in Boston, where it was found that some hundreds of priests had been sexually abusing children throughout the city for decades while the church did nothing but move those priests around and try and keep the victims quiet (sometimes, like in the case of Cardinal Law, moving the offending protectors to the Vatican itself), not anywhere else around the world where the church has engaged in systematic despoiling of a community’s or parish’s children.  The church survives, continues with its “work.”

Back in the early 90s, I agonized about whether or not I should go to the authorities about what my stepfather had done to my sister and me. Should I go to the police? Will they even believe me? And what about all his patients? Won’t I be harming them if he’s not allowed to practice anymore? I had the idea that maybe the good he (ostensibly) was doing elsewhere should mean more than the harm he did at home. I was a good victim, and a good woman — I was more worried about the well-being of others, had been well-groomed not just by my stepfather but by a society that trains us to put the good of the many above the good of the few. Sure, we say, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves — but does that really have to undermine his message of equality and democracy??

We’re raised with this kind of cognitive dissonance. We are trained to worry about the well-being of the abusers. We are afraid that maybe something bad will happen to them if we tell about what they did to us. A good friend wrote about this recently — we needn’t worry. The abusers almost always land on their feet, often even in the house of what used to be the president.  No one has stopped watching Woody Allen movies, or Roman fucking Polanski. Feminists aplenty stood with, stand with, Bill Clinton. Plenty of people still go to the Catholic church, still listen to the music of James Brown, John Mayer, still read the books of …

I trail off here and my heart gets thick and watery and I lose track of what I want to say. Do I really mean to say that the abusers always win, so we shouldn’t feel bad for them? Even if we tell. Even if they get held “accountable.” It’s disheartening (um, to say the least) to know that, more often than not, people are going to stand with the abuser, or abusers. It’s the way we are raised as Americans, certainly.

But beyond that, maybe the message I want to hold this morning is that we ought to tell, early and often and loudly. Tell and tell and tell. The abuser is going to tell his(*) side, and plenty of people will stand with him, whether they believe in him or not.

I watch an ex of mine being lauded in a community he claims to have been participating in for nearly a decade (never mind that we were together for part of that time, and he never once went to any event or  gathering of theirs during that time) – he’s being raised up as a leader, turned to for spiritual guidance, given opportunities to lead others during times of great tenderness, fear, vulnerability. In the years since we split up, and of course while we were still together, I was afraid to tell about the difficulties in our relationship. I was ashamed of being under someone’s control the way I was with him, feared his response if he found that I had talked about him or us, and believed that others wouldn’t believe me if I told them what he was like in private or that they wouldn’t care. Just last year, after we’d been apart for more than four years, I shared a tiny piece of our relationship on Facebook after I read an interview in which he claimed that we’d broken up because I couldn’t support his transition to male. I’d been astonished to read this — his transition had had exactly nothing to do with why I finally left him. But even then, all those years later, I was afraid to tell my truth about him. That interview was in the SF Bay Times because he’d been chosen as a grand marshal for the Pride parade. What if someone saw what I wrote and asked him about what I’d said. What if it embarrassed him?!? I was still more worried about him than about myself. And I needn’t have worried. No one asked him about the little bit I shared on Facebook. Nothing stood in the way of him being celebrated as a community leader at the front of our pride parade. He’s doing just fine.

Of course, worry about the well-being of the ones who hurt us isn’t the only consideration when we think about telling our stories of trauma and abuse, but often it’s one piece of our fear. What if we laid that part down?

It’s going to take many, many of us telling, over and over again, for this system that is thousands of years old to begin to change fundamentally, foundationally. And in the meantime, maybe we don’t need to worry so much about the well-being of the people who harmed us. We can tell. We can tell ourselves in private, we can tell our notebooks, we can tell our therapists. We can tell friends, community members, we can write it in poems, into songs, into stories, into memoir, we can tell our own truths, we can tell the truth about our lives. Muriel Rukeyser said the world will split open if we do. I once thought she meant that literally, wanted it to be a literal breaking open, the world coming apart at the seams when women, when all survivors of abuse and trauma and violence and oppression, came forth with the realities of their lives. But it’s a smaller breaking apart — fissures in the facade we are meant to live within, the facade of white supremacy, of male supremacy. Enough little fissures and cracks can bring a wall down. Keep telling in all the many ways that you tell. It makes a difference — in our hearts and bodies, in the bodies of those who hold the truth with us, in the bodies of those yet to be born.


* (I’m using his here in the specific and the general — specifically to mean men, to mean male, understanding that the vast majority of abusers are male-gendered, and in the old way, when he was meant to stand in for all of humankind, understanding that abusers come in all genders.)