on money and class oog

Good morning, good morning. It’s an early morning — well, not as early as I’d hoped, but still.

Things are changing, changing, changing. Next week is the last one before classes begin. I have a group today and a group on Saturday, the last Writing the Flood in our Oakland space on Madison (in early September, I’ll be moving into a different home, and Writing the Flood will be moving back to San Francisco).

I’m thinking a lot about money and class these days — noticing the places where my class consciousness clashes with my class reality. I keep noticing that I have some embarassment when I tell people where I’m going to school:  The voice in my head says, All this time you waited to go for your MFA, and you’re just going to State? All this writing and work you’ve been doing, and you couldn’t even get into a good school? I have this idea in my head that this is what people are thinking when I tell them that I’ve chosen to enroll in the MFA program at SF State. Yikes, right? But I think this has nothing, really, to do with the MFA program at any particular school, and everything to do with my idea of what “good” means, what “successful” means, and how much both of those are tied to money and expense, even after all of these years of trying to get away from our money=worth culture in the US.

Let me tell you that I’m really ready to get started with classes. I’ve just been assigned my advisor (the amazing poet/experimental writer Toni Mirosevich, with whom I’m so excited to get to work). Here are just some of the grads of the SFSU MFA program whose work I admire wildly: Kim Addonizio, Elana Dykewomon, Meliza Benales, Devorah Major, Linda Watanabe McFerrin, Alejandro Murguia, Carol Muske- Dukes, Cornelia Nixon (now on staff at Mills), Anne Rice (come on), Rae Armantrout, Barbara Jane Reyes, & the fabulous Gina de Vries — and, of course, faculty include Dodie Bellamy, Robert Gluck, ZZ Packer… I feel like I have to make a case for this program, just for the classist oog in my head that says I made a lesser choice. Of course I didn’t make a lesser choice. I made exactly the right choice for me. So why do I feel this “buyer’s remorse” knocking around in the back of my brain?

I applied to just two MFA programs: SF State and Mills. I wanted something local, I wanted a program that wasn’t just for “working adults” but was a regular, full-time school program. I wanted to work somewhere where the faculty were used to working with experimental writing, weird writing. I was drawn to State in large part because of Biting the Error (a collection of essays tangling with (and undoing) traditional narrative, which blew me right open with gratitude and exhilarated possibility when I first read it, edited by Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy and Gail Scott, the co-founders of the Narrativity Website Magazine, based at the Poetry Center at — where? — yes, San Francisco State University). I was drawn to Mills because I knew brilliant folks who had gone there, and also because there was the chance I could get a fellowship that would cover my tuition. There are no fully-funded Creative Writing MFA programs in the Bay Area — the only one I found in CA is the program at Riverside — and the fact is that I can’t afford to pay the tuition at a private institution like Mills. I thought I had a pretty good chance at the fellowship, given the work that I’ve been doing for the last ten years, but it didn’t work out that way.  (They don’t make available the information about who got the fellowships, year by year, on their website, so I don’t know who was awareded that opportunity instead.)

Tuition at Mills is $31, 620 for a year. Tuition at State is $6,738 for a year. That makes Mills more than four and a half times as expensive — and that’s just the tuition, not to mention fees, etc., and then I’ve got to figure out how to pay my bills while I’m in school. State gave me a scholarship to cover the full tuition, plus work-study access, and I decided to go ahead and take out a loan to cover living expenses for the first year — if I get other scholarship or other work during my first year of school, I can go ahead and pay that loan right back. I’m still paying for the loans I took out for my MA in Transformative Language Arts at Goddard – I still owe 21,500 on an almost 30,000 loan that I’ve been paying since 2001. I would like to take three years to focus on my writing without coming out completely buried in debt. I’ve been a working writer in the Bay Area. I know what our economic prospects look like. I know how difficult it is to make enough money to pay back big debt (or just enough to pay rent and electric bills).  Take that reality plus the opportunity to work with/around/influenced in any way by the folks/program/institution involved with the ideas in Biting the Error, and the choice, in the end, wasn’t a hard one for me at all.

Why am I talking about money today? Because I feel some class shame about going to a state school, about not having some prestigious name to go with my MFA (never mind that I never tell people about the so-called “prestigous” school where I got my BA). But recently I’ve found myself thinking, Oh, the real writers go to Columbia, go to Iowa, don’t go to MFA programs at all — there’s always a way to talk yourself into feeling like shit, isn’t there?

I think about money all the time. In the 10 years that I’ve been facilitating writing groups in the Bay Area (and around the country), I built a business that got some interest, I did some good work; nowadays, if I tell people I run Writing Ourselves Whole, there’s some chance that they’ve heard of it, that someone they know went to a group and had a positive experience there. I’ve worked with hundreds of writers. And yet, because I had to struggle every single quarter of those 10-some-odd years to fill groups and make ends meet, because I’m setting the work down having no money in the bank, I feel like a failure, like lesser-than. I’m not the Writing Salon, not the Grotto, not able to really “make it.”

What is it that only equates success with money, money with success? Is it even possible to root out that mentality while living in our particular capitalist America?

I’m looking for someone to tell me that I did a good job and I made a difference in some folks’ lives. This is about trying to undo the sense of grim in the pit of my stomach, pull up that elitism that my stepfather instilled in me, the way he force-fed his upper-class-climbing down into me — the state schools are the backups, the fallbacks. It’s bullshit, though. The state schools are the working-class schools, where brilliant (and often, of course, under-recognized) work is happening.

What am I really trying to say about this? I’m soaking in stress and panic, in the decisions I’ve made about money in this lifetime. I have certainly resigned myself to understanding that if I want to live the life that feeds me — the one with words in it, and walks with the dog, and long wanders in the garden in the daytime — I won’t be able to buy a house, say, or have much of any other financial security, in the Bay Area, ever. Because the bay area isn’t a place for the dreamers and the wanderers and the weirdos anymore. It’s a place for money.

But that’s not what this is about. This is about something I’m working out about my worth even without money, about my worth, about the worth of my work, even though it hasn’t been lucrative. About not feeling like these last ten years are ending in failure because I have nothing to “show” for them.

Why do I capitulate to the idea that something less expensive is worth less? Do I really believe I’m going to get 3/4 the MFA from State that I would from Mills? Of course I don’t. In fact, I believe I’m going to get a completely different sort of MFA from State that I would from Mills — maybe these two degrees from these two institutions can’t even be compared to one another. I mean, one feels like more of a working-class place, and the other feels like a middle-class place — wouldn’t that necessarily impact the programs themselves? And I’m going to get a degree unencumbered by the sort of money panic I would have had going to Mills. I’m going to get to have three years not constantly anxious about where the money is coming from. After 10 years hustling, working multiple jobs, putting my writing last, never doing “enough” to “make it” as a small-creative, trauma-survivor-centered business in the Bay Area, do I need to explain what a gift that is? Already that stress has been easing off of my soulders, and I don’t quite know what to do with the space its left in its wake. I feel a bit like I’m floating.

I take a break from writing this post to apply for another work-study job — there’s a position in the poetry center, there’s a position in the library (could I go back in to the university library after 18 years?), there’s a position in the english department. There are gigs as instructional aids for creative writing classes, jobs doing circulation work, data entry, and more. As I write this post, I feel the class shame start to transform itself into a throb of pride: I get to go to SF State for my MFA, goddamnit. And I can’t wait to get started.

what I want to give my sister for her birthday

Good morning, good morning. Here I am again at my little desk, the one with the candles and the mug of (decaf) coffee doused with soymilk. the one with the quiet and the rush of traffic outside that can sound like the waves if I let my ears unfocus enough. The one that settles in around me, drapes itself around my shoulders, whispers, “quit stalling and write now, girl.”

Today is my sister’s birthday. I would like to tell you about birthdays of her past, from when we were little, but I can’t remember any of them. Is this an age thing or a trauma thing? At what point do you quit asking that question? I would like to be able to tell you, when my sister turned six, she had a big party with all of her friends from our school in the city, where we’d moved when I was still in kindergarten and she was only three. She wore a pink dress to the party and my mom made her a cake and all the kids played pin the tail on the donkey  with a paper donkey that my mom made out of construction paper and pile cleaners for whiskers. But that’s not a true memory. I don’t know what happened for her sixth birthday, or her seventh, or her eighth. By her 8th we were living in Omaha, weren’t we? It’s not just big-sister narcissism — I can’t remember my own 6th or 7th or 8th birthdays, either. (Let this be a lesson to you, parents who are knocking yourselves out trying to one-up yourselves and every other parent in the neighborhood when it comes to your kids’ birthdays.)

I want to have those memories, though. I want to have a direct thread to the length of our togetherness. I want to remember more clearly how much we loved each other, and what we fought about, and when we disappointed each other and the secrets we kept for each other. I want there to have been good secrets between us. I know we had them. I just don’t remember.

Today I’ll visit my sister in her little apartment, celebrate her birthday with her husband and her child, and our mother, too. Family.

What can I give my sister on her birthday? I can’t give her memories of Before — we each have so few of them. I can’t give a history, a tracing back through the terror into the place where we loved each other without reservation and had nothing to complicate that love. I can’t tell stories of the little girls we were; those stories are buried deep in us now. I spend two week with my beloved in the place she was a child, and she enters into story after story — about her life at home, about each one of the good friends she had in the neighborhood, about her brother, about grade school, middle school, high school,about jobs and sports — about a normal sort of growing up. I listen with delight, of course, because I love her and I want to know — to have known — her at every age she’s ever been. And I listen with an ache, too, not just for the fact of those sorts of stories I don’t have about my own life, but for the fact of memories I don’t have, either.

For my sister’s birthday, I’d like to give her those memories. Not a different past — I can’t consider that, knowing that a different past would change who we are now, would change where she’s found herself and what a beautiful person she and her husband have made — but an easy drop into memories of a time when we were ok just as we were, when we were just girls with a future ahead of us, with normal struggles and worries and longings, when we ran after butterflies and climbed trees and she put up with all of my big-sister meannesses (pretending the dime is less than the nickel, pretending the garden hose is a snake, squeezing lumps of mom’s thick, natural, brown conditioner into the tub while we were in the bath and trying to convince my sister to tell mom she’d gone to the bathroom– can you believe she would’t do it?) When we argued over how or whether to play together, when she complained about always having to be the baby when the neighborhood kids played House because she was the littlest or youngest one, when we collected leaves and rocks and weeds, when she came with me down the alleyway shortcut home from school even though mom told us not to go in the alleys. When she trusted me to lead her into safe places. When the only danger we knew was a sharp piece of gravel under our bare feet. When she got bubble-gum ice cream at the Baskin Robbins and I got rocky road. When we had each other still, even though mom and dad left one another, when we had to walk into new houses and our parents’ new lives, meet their new friends, keep smiles on our faces even though we just wanted everything to go back to the way it was before. We could always make each other laugh, and used to swing on the swingset in the backyard for what seemed like hours — maybe it was 20 minutes, but time elongates the memory, I see us forever there on the swings, caught in that helpless laughter, not able to look at each other because when we do, we start laughing all over again.

These are memories of the time of Before. They’re still in us, all of it is, all those years, all that hope, all that wonder and the regular fears and anxieties of childhood, all that play and possibility. The Halloween costumes and the May baskets and then christmases in our homemade flannel nightgowns and the dresses mom made that looked like Christmas trees. All the open space of Nebraska and endlessly long boring car rides and dad telling us how much longer it would be by telling us how many songs there were to go yet and grandma enfolding us into her arms with a love that was bigger than we were and a little scary. The smell of grandparent’s basements (that, for us at least, didn’t have any danger in them), the smell of the fourth of July in the middle of the country, the smell of the snow in the middle of February.

These memories are still ours, even underneath what came after. Our stepfather didn’t obliterate our histories, no matter how hard he tried. We live them still. Our histories, our togetherness, our sisterhood: that’s what got us through. Today I can’t bring a fat stream of memory, but I can bring homemade scones and [shhh…] and we can eat dinner together and watch her son play and not have words for what it means that we survived as long as we did to be able to make it into this now, with this new life between and through us, growing into his own memories, erupting with surprise at every new experience, just like we did once, together, for so long hand-in-hand.

trusting that moment of release

Relax_harderWe push ourselves hard to relax right. We give ourselves too little time after too long working too much for too many days in a row, and then we expect ourselves to relax at the drop of a hat. Relax, damnit! There’s only these two days of weekend before we have to get back to work! Hurry up and unwind! The pressure to unclench just adds more stress, when we’re supposed to do it both correctly and on a timeline. We tighten more, knot up a little harder, and can’t understand what people mean when they talk about self-care. Who has time to relax? we want to know. There’s just so much to do. And what does relax mean, anyway, for those of us who tensed up as a way of protecting ourselves from the violence that forced its way into our bodies? Don’t those “Just Relax” people know that, for us, being clenched was our radical self care?

What can relax mean for us, then, when being curled into a tight ball was the safest position? What does it take for us to unfurl what has been bound and rigid within ourselves, to trust that we can be safe when we are exposed?

~~ ~~ ~~

We’ve had two floating-wave days, two too-hot-to-walk-on-the-sand-let’s-get-back-in-the-water days. Days where I’ve been in the water enough that the sea’s rhythm finally entered my blood. Last night I sat on shore, at dinner, lay in bed, and something in me was still swaying, pushing out and sucking back in. Just now I feel it in my shoulders, around and through the deep part of my chest.

This morning I was out in the water at 9am, the beach still relatively empty; the only other people in the water were the surfers, seal-slick in their wetsuits, and a lone paddleboarder who lay prostrate on his board like he was a reverent welcoming the sun. I stretched my body out in the buoyant salt water and did the same, offering myself to sun and undulance, offering myself to morning-soft air so thick it clings to the skin in droplets, offered myself to the tiny minnows flashing around my ankles in their flickering schools. Offering myself to tern screams and sea gull cries and the waft of plover wings as the body of their flock drifted low over the nearby shore. A few minutes later, some neighbor kids came out and took their place in the water, four of them, at first with nothing to arm themselves against the waves but their bodies — the boogie boards came later.

Here is where I lean again into learning to trust being present and relaxed at the same time. My head dropped down below the surface, ears filling just so and what I hear is not the cheers of the surfers catching a swell or the screams of the kids in the midst of their morning ablutions, but the swish of undercurrent waves, my own breath, the roll of water all around me. I close my eyes, just for a moment (I know better than to keep my eyes closed on mother sea) and just let myself float. Just let myself be bouyed up. For a moment, I imagine two hands, I imagine the body of the sea as mother — of course I do. I imagine this as a place where I can relax, a place I can trust. Just for a moment, I lean all the way in. I relax my arms, legs, quit treading water, I just float. Just for a moment.

That one moment, that deep relax, makes all the difference to me, is what I search for during these days at the water. It’s akin to that moment when I’m on the dance floor — you know that moment, when everything is in sync: the music and the gathered dancers, the bass is perfect and I am in flow, my body sweating hard, I am grinning, I am nearly panting, it’s maybe the better part of the way through the night but the dj has been on a roll and every song is good, every song is so good that I can’t bring myself to step off the floor for a second, I don’t want to miss a moment of it, and the energy of everyone is charged and joyful, and I feel my whole body, my whole self, engage. The rest of everything else falls away. Anything else falls away. Nothing else matters but these beats this circle of muscle and sweat and joy this urgency this well-oiled press forward. Something clicks into gear, we are just in the right now, and in this right now, everything is all right. Everything is better than all right: we are safe enough to be all right, we are alive and alive and alive.

That moment of unfurling into the water’s hold is like that, that moment where everything else falls away, and for a second, you don’t have to worry about the to-do list, you don’t have to worry about taking care of anyone else, you don’t have to worry about everything that’s wrong with you or all that you regret or all you haven’t yet accomplished in  your life. In that moment, you are sheer delight, sheer pleasure, sheer gratitude, sheer presence.

You know — of course you know — what it means to allow ourselves to trust anything or anyone enough to lean in and let down our guard, put away the Watcher that hangs out over our shoulder or at the backside of our consciousness and worries the bones of us with its panics and reminders of all that is still wrong, all that is not safe, all that is not healed, all that is still broken — what it means to give ourselves that moment of peace and ease.

That good moment — I got to soak into that today. And it sunk all the way down into my bones.

loving a friend from far too far


This is the postcard display at the Lobster Shack down at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth. All but two the postcards feature Jeff’s cartoons.

I have been finding my friend Jeff’s cartoons everywhere around Portland since we got here a week ago – his work is on magnets and shot glasses and pint glasses, coasters, sweatshirts, calendars, playing cards, coffee mugs, and more. I was so excited to find how big he’s hit it, how broadly his products are available now. Jeff creates cartoons about Maine: lobsters, moose, and the stereotypical Old Mainers show up in his panels. I’ve run across items adorned with his wisecracking characters in just about every touristy shop we’ve stopped into.

I couldn’t wait to write to Jeff and just be generally excited in his direction.

I thought the same thing when I was here a month ago. And last year, too. I really should write to him and tell him how great it is to see his work everywhere! But I hadn’t done it yet.

Back when I lived in Maine, Jeff and I were in a writing group together; we met regularly along with several other folks, gathering at different’ member’s houses or at local cafes (did we meet at cafes?) to talk about the work each of us shared with each other. We had someone working on children’s books, another who wrote sci-fi, fantasy, literary fiction, poetry — Jeff was working on horror, and I was doing whatever it was I was doing: poetry, maybe, or little things I called poetry, and some of my erotic fiction. I had found the group through a co-worker of my then-wife’s; that co-worker’s partner was in the group (our fantasy writer: amazing). Over the time that we were in the group together, Jeff and I got to be friends. He was a bearish sort of guy, a little taller than me, bearded, with eyes that sort of sparked when he talked to you, and he loved to laugh and to make other people laugh. He was ten or so years my senior, lived alone in — Falmouth, was it? We met now and again outside of the group, to talk about life and relationships and the deep desire we each had to get our writing out into the world. We were writing friends; I thought he was funny, supportive, and deeply kind and caring. We stayed in touch, just now and then, after I moved; he sent emails periodically, reminding me that he wanted to get together when I came back to visit Maine.

But I didn’t go back to visit Maine for a long time after my ex-wife and I split up. I felt like Maine was hers, like I didn’t deserve it anymore, like part of my penance for how I ended our relationship was to cede the whole state to her (please note that she didn’t ask any such ridiculousness of me).

Once I did go, though, with my subsequent partner, and I met up with Jeff and my ex-wife’s former coworker’s partner, R, at a Sudanese restaurant near the Old Port. As delighted as I was to see them, I was also ashamed. I assumed that R would have some allegiance to my ex-wife, given his partner’s connection to her, and I was waiting for my former writing compatriots to judge me. (Judge me for what? For leaving my wife – the person to whom I had said forever, for getting immediately involved with a coworker of hers after nursing a crush on this person for months prior to my marriage ending, for not telling her about this relationship, for all of it. Who was doing that judging, though? That’s right. I was.) The meal was difficult, uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to say to these once-upon-a-time writing friends. I felt like I should be explaining myself and my relationship actions, though no one had asked me to do so — my Maine friends just wanted to know how I was doing, wanted to tell me how they were doing. But I was so spun up in projecting my guilt onto them that I could barely taste my food. Jeff and I hadn’t gotten together since.

We had a couple of exchanges via Facebook in the last few years, I think. At some point in the last year, I’d posted a photo to his Facebook page, an image of a book of his cartoons I’d seen in the Portland Airport, or maybe it was the picture I took of someone in Oakland wearing a sweatshirt with one of his cartoons on it. He didn’t reply, but I didn’t think about it — after all, it’s not at all uncommon for me not to respond to friends, even though I am very glad to hear from them. And I was getting ready to finally be ready to get in touch with him when I came back to Maine for these long visits. I’m like that – I can go years between contact with the people I call my friends. The folks who I can call best friends are the ones who put up with this from me, who don’t give up on me, who can pick up where we left off when finally I make the call or send an email or make a lunch date. Sometimes I call this being a terrible friend. Other times I call it being an introvert writer. Still other times I call it being a survivor who isolates by way of survival. Still: I was looking forward to finally reconnecting with Jeff. I wanted to make amends for that last dinner, explain my distance and behavior, and then introduce him to my new love. I wanted to hear what was going on with his life, and celebrate the success he’d found with his cartoons.

I had noticed that his cartoons weren’t carried by DownEast Magazine anymore, and I wanted to ask him about that, too. Was there some sort of falling out? Political differences? What happened?

A couple of days into this trip, my sweetheart and I were heading into Portland for a date night: we wanted dinner at Hot Suppa and then time to wander around a local bookstore. I looked on Google and found several bookstores in the city that were new to me, including The Green Hand Bookshop, which looked fantastic and right up our alley. Unfortunately, they were closed by the time we were heading into the city, but when I looked at their website on my phone, there was my friend Jeff’s name in the first paragraph of one of the blog posts, plus Jeff’s picture. Oh cool, I thought — Jeff’s connected with this bookstore! Maybe he helped open it, or — 

And then I opened the blog post, and discovered that my friend Jeff had died. Back in April of 2014 — over a year ago — he had a heart attack and died while driving himself to the hospital. I felt a stun rush through me. I looked up his name and read the articles that ran after his death in the Portland Press-Herald and the Bangor Daily News. I read about who he was to so many people who loved him and stayed active in his life. I caught the summary, having missed the main screening.

I missed him. I missed my chance to say hello again, to say nothing of being able to say a truly open-hearted goodbye.

I’ve got no moral to this post. Of course, I keep telling myself that I need to contact everyone I’ve been out of touch with and tell them hello, tell them I love them, tell them I still think about them often (it’s true) even though I haven’t been in touch in ages. Mostly, right now, there’s a sadness resting heavy in my chest made up of regret and disappointment, more for him than for me. Fifty-five is too young. He should have had more life. Good night, Jeff. I hope you’re writing hard and laughing harder wherever you are now. I’m so grateful I got to know you when I did.

we are in the work of making it through

graffiti - red paint on blue background -- of a heart in a cageTonight I have so much I want to write about, so many bits and pieces of memory and present that are braiding themselves together inside me, but at this exact moment as I type I am simply feeling grateful.

I drive these green-lined roads under thick grey skies and I remember the aches and sorrows and desire and fear that lived in me when I lived here last. I remember how sure I was that nothing was ever going to change, that I would always wake up from night terrors with my heart in my throat and my body awash in tension,  that I would always feel unsatisfied, and unsatisfying, as though fully and forever incapable of connecting with others or believing they could truly like or love me for just who I was, flaws and all. I keep thinking about what a difficult person I must have been to live with, to be friends with, to try to love.

Today, over a lovely lunch, I listened to old friends talk about a couple of young people I used to know, who I knew when they were much younger than they are now; they are having a difficult time of it. They don’t see a forward ahead of them when they look to the future. They are sure they are alone and fighting the world, even though they have a swarm of supporters surrounding them, loving them from the distance at which they are kept.

And I thought, I remember feeling this way. I remember the certainty that I was alone, that no one really loved me, that if anyone said they loved me it was probably because 1) they didn’t really know me, or 2) they wanted something from me, or 3) there was something wrong with them. I remember not being able to feel, at all, the deep desire on the part of friends and family that I trust them, lean into them, allow myself to recognize their care. I remember how unsafe their care felt. I remember looking into the future and seeing only that same hazy grey static that had nothing but loss clouding its horizon. I remember thinking that nothing would ever change.

And then it did.

I wanted to tell these young folks to hang on. And I want to tell the folks who love them to hang on. Look at me. Look at my sister. We were never meant to come back into a place of sanity We were trained into a madness so thick it is a wonder we can speak in coherent sentences. And there were years that it seemed — to us, to those who loved us — that we would do nothing but wallow in that madness for the rest of our lives. But we kept reaching. Something in each of us kept reaching, even when, consciously, all we wanted to do was take off our gloves, step out of the ring, and quit the fight. Somedays all we could do was stay alive, believing that maybe tomorrow something would be a little bit different. Maybe some people thought we were hopeless. We certainly thought we ourselves were hopeless (though neither of us ever thought the other was hopeless).

I want an “it gets better” campaign for survivors of sexual abuse and violation. I want those of us who have reached another side (not the other side, just any other side) of the pain and devastation and horror and certainly of forever-brokenness to send out our voices to those who are just entering these waters and can’t see anything around them but the grey wash of endless hostile waters and nothing but their own arms and determination to keep them afloat. Even though I know they are needed into a tremendously difficult journey that may bear only marginal similarity to my own, I still want to say tho them, it can get better. I didn’t believe it could, and then it did. And then my life improved in ways I never would have even allowed myself to imagine.

I want this messaging for those who love these survivors, too: if you hold on with them, even at a distance, know that it can get better — their lives can get better, their love for themselves can get better, they will find work that engages them but only after they find work that harms them, work that bores them, survival skills that look to you like sheer destructiveness.

Tonight I am grateful for the fact of healing, and am grieving for those who are just beginning this work, this work of survivors, choosing to live, after suffering loss and violence and abuse. This who make choices in service to their own survival that folks around them can’t understand.

What am I trying to say here? I guess it’s just this: do whatever the fuck you need to do to keep yourself alive, please. And know that you are not alone in your grief, in your loss, in your terror. Though, of course, your particular grief, your particular rage, is yours, and yours only, and, in some ways, no one else will never understand what you have been through. That’s true. And, what’s also true is that many, many, many — far too many — other people have been through something similar or close or akin to what was done to you, that another grief is shaped an awful lot like yours. And there are people around you for whom you think you are too much, your rage is too much, our bad behavior is too much, who you will act terribly towards in order to prove to yourself and them and the world that you are as unloveable as you were told that you were — and they will love you anyway, some of them. I want to say that I’sorry for what you are about to go through, and I want you to know that there is another side to it. What looks like an unchangeable wall of shattered overwhelm and depression and grief that feels so big you can never look at it directly for fear that it will swallow you and turn your body inside out — all this will one day look different. I don’t know if that makes any of what will come in-between this day and that — the long and painful road of healing — any better or easier. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe if I’d known that one day I would feel joy in my body and safe in my skin    like maybe there is something in me truly worth loving    like I am not all incest   like maybe  I can be something else something more something greater —  maybe I would have felt impatient, I would have tried to jump ahead. Who knows.

I hope you will find some way to art your way through it – to write, or to draw, or to sing, or to dance, or to do all of the above, or to paint, or to otherwise create from and through and with the raw material of your deep and gorgeous and messy truth and confusion and memory and living and loss.

I guess today I’m just aware of what survival takes, what it takes to choose to live, what it takes to decide to wake up and get out of bed and take another single tiny step forward, day after day, anyway – even though the demons of pain are still yanking at your ankles and reminding you how worthless you are. You’re not. I wasn’t. My sister wasn’t. We aren’t. We are in the work of making it through.

these constellations of selves we are

My body is having a hard time right now — let me not get into all the details, just stretch into the results, which are that I’m fatigued and somewhat anxious and did not swim in the ocean at all today. Granted, it was a grey and chilly day — there was a walk around the long beach at low tide with dearest friends from way back, and the chill in the air made the water seem warmer. It seems like you’ve gotta swim for sand dollars this year anyway. I should’ve had my suit on, but I think my body would have complained.

Time with friends from school is good and tenderizing in ways I don’t have easy words for. Always, at some point during our time together, I notice myself splitting in a way, peeling apart: one half the self I was when we were regularly in each other’s lives — the just-post-trauma, the just-coming-out, the just-discovering-alcohol, the just-discovering-life self — and the other part the me I have become these twenty-some-odd (ahem) years later. I find myself trying to speak, to engage with them, through both of these lenses/selves at the same time. This makes conversation a disconcerting, vertigo-inducing adventure. No wonder I can get kind of quiet when I’m hanging out with these old friends who knew me When, around whom I become more whole because they carry parts of me — memories, conversations, nighttime walks through deserted streets, drunken and revelatory conversations over empty pool tables or across a candle-lit roughhewn tavern table — that are not complete when I’m away from their company. Perhaps I carry similar parts for them, too.

It is maybe not surprising that my body went wonky. Plus the other thing that I can’t mention. Plus this body’s predisposition. Plus all that sea water. So today I took it easy, piled on the holistic treatments and attempted to cut back on my sugar (which is difficult on this vacation, let me tell you) so that my body could begin to find a way toward rebalancing itself.

All these constellations of selves we are — inside and outside, swimming within us, networks of necessary flora, undulant and symphonic in their responsibilities, and, too, the entanglements of social selves, perceived selves that we have to perform, or even (is it possible?) just be.

Just once I’d like to have a conversation with my oldest friends and not fall apart somewhere inside. These are the people who love me most deep, who apparently still want to spend time with me even though they have seen me at my worst. How terrifying.

For all this might sound catastrophic, please let me say right now that it was a wonderful visit. There was good food and a walk through an absolutely deliciously terrifying seaside thunderstorm (complete with hail and bolt lightning) and candlelit conversation with everyone huddled together around cups of tea after stripping off our soaked clothes and changing into whatever dry wear to be had. There was much tastiness, a dessert to celebrate a birthday, talk of books and bodies, aging and work, politics and race and writing and sex and school.

This evening, after they left and I rested, I went down to the beach and walked just a bit of its length, the tide as high as I’d maybe ever seen it here. I listened to how my body was drawn to the water. I listened to the mosaic of myself begin to settle into something more akin to a singularity again (though it never quite gets there). I felt a little like crying, felt embarrassed, felt grateful, all the while scanning the surf for sand dollars. Then I biked back to the cottage and, while cardinals and goldfinches sang to one another and dive-bombed across the driveway from one birch tree to another, took a couple of hours to get work done on my book.

keep on pedaling

graffiti of a bicycle painted on a cement wallThe ocean is loud tonight – we can hear it all the way up at the house, the waves banging on the shore. Outside sounded to me like a windstorm or rainstorm but then I looked out and the trees were still, the pavement was dry. Oh, I thought. That’s the ocean. I can hear the ocean from my where I sit curled up in my pajamas, curled up in a book, curled up toward the tenderness of night.

This has been a quiet day, a joy day, an intside and in day. There was time on the beach, under mottled sun and clouds, time in the waves (in a bikini top that maybe was not made for rough-riding in the water – ahem). There was time cuddled on couch reading reading reading. There was time working on the book. There were catch-as-catch-can meals and a long bike ride and ice cream.

(Of course. All the days have ice cream.)

At the end of the long bike ride, as we cruised back into our little neighborhood, I sat up, dropped my arms from the handlebars, and coasted, arms hanging down at my sides. And then I started to petal, still with no hands, for just a second, reinhabiting the girl I’d been at 8 and 9 and 10, summers of dirty hair and feet, brown-limbed, cruising around the different neighborhoods we lived in after our parents separated and then divorced, me and the bike a single machine, a thing of beauty, all mechanics and propusion. My legs kept us going, and the bike kept on carrying me around corners and under wide leafy caravans of canopy, up past the neighbor man watering his garden, the women and their baby strollers, the older kids who wouldn’t talk to me, the women inside their small houses who I could only see sometimes through kitchen or living room windows and about whom I made up momentary stories, before causing on to the next house, the next block, the next street  – if I kept in motion, kept in motion, maybe things would be ok. But was I really thinking lie that? The truth was, I just liked to move. I was that kid with tangled hair and boys’ striped tube socks and boys’ blue keds.

Anyway, tonight I felt that tomboy girl in my limbs as we whipped around the corner passing a couple of boys on their bikes, boys about the age that girl inside was, and I pedaled hard, arms down, one hand resting on my thigh. It came back, I thought, and just smiled to myself. I remembered how to do it. They mean it when they say it’s just like riding a bike.

It would be easy for me, at this point in the writing, to slip from this good reminiscing into the horror that was just over that girl’s horizon, all the terror she didn’t know she was about to slam into. Yesterday, after my evening write, I thought about somehow presenting this fact: that every day there is some clear and vivid and solid remembering of those years of violence, some slice of aftermath, something that reminds me of him or me then or what I am still living with, carrying — not because anything especially triggering happened, just because it was a Wednesday, you know. It was just real life. We could call these blogs the Incest Diaries.

It’s not that I necessarily want to make these post all about incest or loss or rage or terror. It’s that it’s just there for me — it’s that this is what everyday looks like for me. This is my normal: There will be a moment when I, reflexively, imagine his response to a story or situation, or notice that something I think or say or do came from him, when I will get dropped into the body of that violence that still lives in the middle of me and have to yank myself back out. Mostly, these days, that yanking happens in a split second. I don’t get dredged down into hours of murk, not to mention days or weeks, all that often anymore. The memory is just that — a memory. You know how that happens just over the course of a day: you’re going about your regular routine, making dinner, showering, listening to the radio, getting ready to go to work, and you think suddenly about something that happened when you first learned to drive, or you hear a song on the radio that reminds you of the boy you had a crush on when you were 4. Me, I remember who it was who first taught me to —

Let me not get into that now. I honestly don’t want to. What I’ll say is that yes, the incest was with me today, just for a moment, a kind of tug on my awareness, an invitation to drive down the bad old road, an opportunity to slink into self-hatred and shame, but instead of following that rage and sorrow, I turned my head forward again, took a deep breath, remembered who I was and where I was with[1]. I drew on all these goddamn many years of learning how to acknowledge the memory and then let it slide to to the side of my consciousness, where, soon enough, it slipped down my slick edgings and out of sight for another little while. I know it will be back. That’s what living this life is like. But I don’t have to let it take over.

You see how we get here? I think the Incest Diaries is a good name.

Today there were two sand dollars and some lovely and exciting stories and waves that crashed over me and took my breath away. In the last few years, I’ve finally learned to ride waves. Never mind that I’ve lived near an ocean since 1997. Never mind that I’ve gone to the ocean as often as possible as soon as I moved to within just a few miles of her rushing and careening breath. My sweetheart asks me, Didn’t you go to Scarborough Beach? Crescent? That was where everybody went to swim. But I didn’t swim when I lived here before — I was a boy, trying so hard to be a boy, and I didn’t like my body, was deeply uncomfortable in a bathing suit, and–being a kid from Nebraska–had no idea what to do with a body of water that kept moving all the time and didn’t let you decide for yourself how you wanted to move within its undulations. But some years ago, as I got more comfortable in my skin, I decided to try again. I watched little kids bouncing as the waves approached, and I learned to do the same.

We forget how to do this as we age, and the waves knock us down, hard. This happened to me at Santa Cruz, in Southern California, too, when I took the risk of getting into that always-swelling-and-falling sea. I got taken down, pulled back hard, sand in my suit and hair and mouth — nothing terrible, just the ocean reminding me who’s boss. There’s something about learning to write [2] the waves, learning how to the the sea carry you, learning how to dive under when you see the crash coming, one that looks too big to ride out. Learning to dive under — I push in, drop my hands, shove back up, and keep on pedaling.


[1] (this was a typo, but I’m leaving it!)

[2] (another typo! ride, I mean…)

undoing the weapon of relax

(whatever will happen, don’t turn back!)

(yes again: some language of sexual violence in here – just be easy with you.)

It’s 9:30pm, and people in the neighborhood are still out for their evening walks — kids on bikes and scooters, couples with happy, wagging dogs on leashes, everyone moving slow, leisurely. There are pop-pop-pops in the distance, and at first, I wonder if they’re gunshots, and then I remember the fireworks we saw above a copse of trees on the way home from the ice cream stand. The mosquitoes came out tonight, as did the first of the sand dollars — we found a mid-sized one this morning, and then two babies tonight: tiny grey sand dollars smaller than the tip of my pinkie finger. The ocean was cold today, colder than it was yesterday or the day before — I can’t understand how that happens. The ocean is itself, no? There was something I wanted to tell you this morning, but it’s gone now. Do you know how thoughts fade like that? I finished the Terry McMillan and have moved onto another beach novel. Today we talked with friends, supped with family. I didn’t have any incest thoughts or rape theorizing. We had sun all day and soaked in it. This was my theme song. My legs are mottled with salt, my skin tacky with sweat and sunblock and bug spray. I fell asleep on the sand — a nap! — and woke up not feeling sticky and gross inside, not feeling as though someone had painted me from belly to brainstem with the residue of  incest dreams (damnit. I guess I was wrong, what I said before).

Mostly, naps haven’t treated me well, as an adult. I’m not much of a napper. My stepfather always encouraged us (or just me? I can’t say more than that) to nap after the “sex” we were forced to have with him, at least he did if it had happened in the time after we got home from school and before our mother got home from work. Just rest for a bit–relax, he’d say, with a weird kind of encouraging or even parental smile that looked like maybe you could trust it, even though you absolutely knew it would be a mistake to do so. And so I slept, waking what had just been done to me, what I had done, into the deepest places of my unconscious, severing my conscious body from its reality — and when I woke up, I would have to occupy a third self altogether, the one that put itself together with penny nails and torn fabric and whose lies duct-taped inside, the one that was made up for the mother.

Relax, he said.

How many ways can relax be used as a weapon?

Then relax becomes entangled with violence and tense becomes the safer place to live.

That is to say, relaxation has been an unsafe place to live, and naps, in particular, have not treated me well as an adult. They have been sites of difficult dreams and slithery body memory with no words attached. I don’t nap, I told people unequivocally.

I’ve napped several times since being here, however — always on the beach, my belly pressed to warm sand, the sun resting gentle and steady on my back — and have awakened without having to wade through the tarry old murk. Who knows why this is so; today, I refuse to interrogate this gift. In the late afternoon, when I woke from my little cat nap, I bounced to my feet and ran headlong into the cold water, diving into the shallow waves of still-high tide. It wasn’t to rinse the nap out of my synapses. It wasn’t even to celebrate a nap well done. It was the animal in me, seeking this particular pleasure – rest now, now cold plunge and salt, now — ok, now — ice cream.

poems and bookwork and dayfog, oh my

So I stayed up until after 1am finishing A Wolf at the Table, Augusten Burroughs’ memoir about his father, who is portrayed as a man so sociopathic and terrifying I was afraid I might not be able to sleep after taking the stories into my head. I’ll admit this to you: I did some skimming. I wanted to get the book done. It’s presented as a prequel to Running with Scissors, and gives some interesting backstory and depth to that book, in which the mother is presented as simply selfish and wildly unhinged, resolutely putting herself first before anyone or anything else, including her son. A Wolf at the Table gives me a different mother, one who was able to at least attempt to protect her son from the damage and violence his father / her husband brought into their home. I read the book like I might a mystery, trying to figure out whodunnit, only in this case, I wanted to know, just like any tabloid reader: what did he do? Burroughs book is filled with mostly psychological terrorizing, which was familiar to me in my teenage home, too. I’m left with images from the book that I can’t erase. I can’t tell yet whether or not I’m glad I read it.

I managed to fall asleep and didn’t have any nightmares I can remember. I woke up grateful that I was finished with the Burroughs book, though. There’s not a great deal of closure at the end of Wolf, but then again, how do we really get closure after being tortured by a parent or someone pretending to be a parent? What does that mean, closure, when there’s someone we love or loved who said they loved us and then stuck their pinkies into the soft skin at the lowest part of our backs, pushed in and tugged at our spines until everything in us collapsed? What does closure look like when our minds and bodies, our childhoods, and thus our adulthoods, have been warped out of all recognition, bent fully away from wherever we might once have thought we were going, could become? How can I expect closure from such a text? Wouldn’t it be more authentic — that is, less mainstream trauma narrative redemptive story arc — to end the book with no closure at all: These fucked-up things happened, and I am fucked up as a result. The end.

It’s been a day of reading. I read the paper in the morning — Bill Cosby felt entailed to lure young women into his gravitational pull with promises of mentorship and assistance. He kept a stash of quaaludes around just so he could offer them to young women. He “helped” the women he was finished having sex with, paying for school or other bills, so that they wouldn’t reveal anything to his wife. He is our cultural father figure, our Mr. Huxtable. Doesn’t that tell you’ll you need to know about our culture — this is our father figure. This man. They have two sides, our father figures: the side the public sees and remains determined to believe in no matter what, and the side that the people inside the house, behind closed doors, are forced to know.

Who can we trust? What does trust even mean?

If I were a man, a man who didn’t rape and who didn’t condone other men’s rape, I’d be pissed as hell — why do I have to be associated with these assholes, this history? I’d be doing everything I could to try and undo this culture that leads women to understand that, because of my maleness, by virtue of my masculinity, I am not to be trusted — I am guilty until proven innocent. Women have developed this intuition, this need to assume the worst, for our own safety. Wouldn’t that break your heart, if you were a so-called “good” man? Wouldn’t you get crazy at night, sitting alone in your little apartment, thinking about how much distance there was between you and the women you wanted to know, care for, befriend, love? Thinking about all the work you were going to have to do just to prove that you weren’t a rapist asshole. Since all the rapist assholes do such a good job of prsentinging themselves to the world as “good guys.”

(One might ask the same sorts of questions about white folks who want to think of themselves as “good guys,” too, though, huh?)

What else? At the beach it was mostly grey, the atmosphere fuzzy and chilled, and the sand dollars are hiding themselves from our eyes. We walked the beach a couple of times, and did spend an hour or so stubbornly lying out on the beach reading our books in our bathing suits even though the sun sucked itself back under fog and clouds almost immediately after we lay down, and the wind kicked up and I had to wrap my shoulders with my beach towel to keep warm. I started Tery McMillan’s The Interruption of Everything, and it satisfying and good reading. Makes me want to find some April Sinclair, though. And then, mid-morning, when it was clear that the clouds were socked in for the time being, I took out my own pages and did some work, editing, revising, a couple of hours settled up on the porch of this sweet house, cosseted in by grey and good music, working on the book that I hope someday will be a thing that sits in others’ hands, when they are curled up in a comfy chair or in the corner of the couch or at a cafe table with their notebook open and a pen uncapped and a cup of coffee warming their hands they are reading these words and these words make them think and they put down the book and start to write their own words. I edit with them in mind. So this work was a good part of the day.

Later we found a bookstore in Portland that had a miraculously kick-ass poetry selection — all the books from Writebloody Publishing (including Tara Hardy’s Bring Down the Chandeliers)! A collection of prose poems and micro fictions from Australia. A collection of Nebraska poetry (what?). And Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, which contains (we were delighted to discover after we took it home with us) one of the first poems my sweetheart ever sent me (back when we were serenading each other with poems every day, wooing each other with words, wooing ourselves, too, back into the poems we had each once loved and had forsaken for different reasons over the course of our separate lives), as well as one of my most recent favorite poems, “Rape Joke,” which includes these lines:

The rape joke is that he knew you when you were 12 years old. He once helped your family move two states over, and you drove from Cincinnati to St. Louis with him, all by yourselves, and he was kind to you, and you talked the whole way. He had chaw in his mouth the entire time, and you told him he was disgusting and he laughed, and spat the juice through his goatee into a Mountain Dew bottle.

The rape joke is that come on, you should have seen it coming. This rape joke is practically writing itself.

(now go read the whole thing)

We bought the collection of prose poetry and the Lockwood, just because we were so thrilled to have found a Lockwood collection on the shelf of this small bookstore’s small poetry section. Then we went to a little bar in the Old Port and got decaf coffee and she got blueberry pie and I got a slice of dark chocolate torte and the decaf coffee was just brewed and was strong and good (unlike at most places where there’s no decaf or it’s been sitting on the warming plate for 3 hours and so tastes like the scrapings off a piece of burnt toast) and the dark chocolate torte was dark and rich and strong and good and not at all too sweet.  We sat across from each other and read our poems and exclaimed. It was a good date.

Now there’s more reading. The sea is serenading itself not far away from us. Outside, the headlights brush through the neighbors’ yards, spotlighting mist and nightshadow.

remembering how to trust the ride

graffiti, a child sitting with her knees pulled up to her chest, hands on knees, chin on hands, next to the words Pat Schneider says that, when you go on retreat, you have to expect to sleep for the first three days — it’s your body coming down from its usual routines. It’s 9:30 pm now, late, and my body is tired, the good kind of tired, the tired that says I have spent the day in sun and movement, spent the day in or near water. Soon enough the rhythm of the waves will be inside me. Last year I spent so much time floating in and riding the sea that I felt that metronome of earthly energy in my body back on the beach, lying down to read, sitting at the table for dinner, climbing into bed. This is what I want to be able to give you.

Today I have thought a lot about my nephew. I thought: This is the closest I will get to parenting, this relationship with him — and then I wonder if that is true. I imagine walking with him along these beaches, pointing out small shells, pointing out crabs and urchins and tiny starfish, answering what questions I can and learning from him, too.

I’ve finished one (Andrew Vachss’ ShockWave) of the 11 books in my vacation pile this year, and have discarded another from that pile after only reading about half (Augusten Burroughs’ Magical Thinking) — it takes a lot for me to decide to quit reading a book; usually I’m the sort of reader who will just keep plowing through, searching for the good part, assuming that there must be some good part in there somewhere – I mean, it got published after all.

But I couldn’t do it. Burroughs’ voice in that book is so self-centered and whiny it makes my shoulders tense, which is the opposite of what I want just now. So I put the book down, and started reading both Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Lousie Erdrich’s The Bingo Palace. And then tonight I picked up Burrough’s memoir of his father, Wolf at the Table. Why, after my response to  Magical Thinking, would I pick up another of his books? 1) I’m a sucker for a good, terrible trauma story, and this is supposed to be exactly that. 2) I’m thinking a lot about fathers these days. 3) There are books of Burroughs’ (Running with Scissors, Dry) that I really appreciated, have read repeatedly, and teach me things about writing trauma memoir. 4) I wanted to see if this one irritated me as badly as the previous one did. And the answer, so far, is that though it’s not as whiny and egocentric as Magical Thinking‘s essays feel to me, still there’s that something that has creeped into Burrough’s writing voice — I want to find the words for what it is. I wonder how far I’ll get through Wolf at the Table.

We ate homemade crabmeat rolls for dinner and brussels sprout-carrot salad with goddess dressing and almonds. And ice cream. And a chocolate donut (just me, left over form breakfast) .

Time spreads out here, flattens and unrolls all around us. The clock changes meaning – we pay more attention to the position of the sun in the sky than to the hands on hour or minute. We read and read, and then we sleep, and then we walk, and then read or swim or write. We make up a shopping bag with beach snacks, almonds and dried apricots, cherries, an apple, triscuits and wheat thins, the carrots and cucumbers from our garden at home. Everything smells like sea salt and sweat. My skin still smells like the waves I soaked in. In the water, I looked out at the calm stretch of ocean; at high tide, the water was nearly flat; The waves were shallow and the bodyboarders had to make do with little crests of foam to get pushed into shore. The teenage girls paraded in their bikinis, and the teenage boys threw footballs and frisbees in the water, stretching and diving, showing off more for each other than for the girls, but for the girls, too. The sky was flat blue above me, but clouds curled in tight whipped cream frothed to the east, ow in the sky. Out aways from where I floated, gulls and terns dive-bombed the water, reaching for the minnows fluttering in schools beneath us all.

After dinner, we took out the beach bikes to cruise around this community of old one-story houses and brand new mansions with eight or more rooms. I tried to remember how to ride with no hands. How did I used to do it? My sweetheart tells me she doesn’t think this is a good bike for that, but I think it’s something in my body that doesn’t remember how to trust the combination of gravity and propulsion, doesn’t remember how to situate itself loose enough in the seat to stay upright and balanced while my lower half pedals forward, always forward, coasting, easy in my skin, easy in my bones, easy in the saddle, easy in the rhythm. I wonder if I’ll remember by the end of these two weeks here.

At the bike shop to pick up our rentals, I felt that ache that always rises in bike shops, a sense of not belonging, of waiting to be reminded I don’t belong. When  was young (how old? I can’t remember? 8 or 9 or 10 – ), my dad took me to a bike shop to get something and I was looking at the bikes in the shop while he did whatever he had to do. Some of the bikes had a bar across them, from the seat to just under the handlebars. My bike, a blue Schwinn with a banana seat, didn’t have that bar. What was it for? I didn’t know that there were boys’ bikes and girls’ bikes — I thought there were just bikes. I asked my dad about at bar, but before he could answer, the kids who worked there — young boys, teenagers probably — laughed at me. She doesn’t know what a crossbar is! She’s so stupid! I felt my face flush  and I just wanted to leave. Outside the store, my dad said, Those boys made me so mad. I wanted to tell them to they were stupid, too. 

What kind of young men make fun of a child asking a question? Do I even have to ask?

I think of the time my sister and I were on a Greyhound bus on the way back from visiting my mother’s mother in Hastings. We had been at her house for a week, maybe more, and we headed home. Grandma had packed us sandwiches for the trip, and little individual tarts, vanilla pudding in homemade crusts. I couldn’t wait to eat them. When we stopped in Lincoln, my dad was at the bus station to check on us, make sure we were all right. We weren’t staying with him, he was just checking in. The stop was short, and soon we had to get back on the bus for the last leg to Omaha, 60 miles away. We waved at my dad out the window, and maybe were crying because we didn’t get to see hm very much and we missed him and were were young and scared on a Greyhound bus alone. The men in the back of the bus — young, maybe hippies? — waved too, mocking us. Bye bye, Daddy! Bye bye! And they hooted with laughter.

What kind of man mocks a child waving good bye to her father?

And then imagine walking again with Noah, telling him the stories, and saying, Don’t be that kind of man, Noah. There are all kinds of men to be. If you’re going to be a man, don’t be that kind of man.