Tag Archives: books

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.


Book notes: Beyond Survival

cover for the book Beyond SurvivalI just recently discovered the book Beyond Survival: A Writing Journey for Healing Childhood Sexual Abuse by Maureen Brady, and I’m glad to be able to add it to the Writing Ourselves Whole library.

Published in 1992, this is a collection of 52 writing exercises specifically focusing on issues around healing from sexual trauma; the idea is that you give yourself a year to explore through writing your own healing: week 2: Breaking the silence; week 15: But who am I?; week 32: Sexuality; week 49: Trust.

The exercises are much more directive than I offer in the Write Whole workshops, in that they ask the writer to specifically consider different parts of our life and struggle after experiencing sexual trauma: write what you remember about the abuse, write what you lost by keeping secrets,  write what you’re afraid will happen if you trust people — each week’s exercise includes a page or so of discussion about that theme or issue. You could respond to these exercises for yourself or for your characters (if you’re working with a character who is a survivor of sexual violence, writing in response to some of these exercises could be an excellent way to learn more about them and their lives).

Beyond Survival seems like it would make a good companion for folks working with The Courage to Heal, but is also a  powerful tool on its own, regardless of how long you have been wrangling with the aftermath of trauma.

More as I read through this new find!

this buoyancy: workshops, holding space, and the netting we create for one another

spilling tea graffiti

the description of this image says its spilled coffee, but look at the tea bag tag hanging off the side -- let's say it could very well be tea.

a lovely way to wait for the tea water to boil: wandering around the kitchen, grabbing allspice berries, clove buds, breaking off bits of Mexican cinnamon stick, cracking open cardamom pods and coriander, all to put into the tea ball for spiced green tea. Now it’s simmering next to me and smells like goodness, smells like cool mornings, smells like something clean and differentiating and sharp.


I walked into the office this morning, still a little dusky with sleep, and went to move yesterday’s mail off my chair.  In the mail was a priority mail package, a little battered, something boxy inside.  More flyers for the Power of Words conference?  Something else to be hung up or spread around?  I opened the package after getting the computer warming up (this poor old kid needs warming the way cars do in Maine in winter — in, like, thick winter, when you go out a half-hour before you have to be on the road and crank the engine, get it finally rumbly and alive, and then you put on the defroster to high and run back inside thru the snow and chill,your breath already iced, to eat your oatmeal. Ok, maybe a little it of an exaggeration — sorry computer; you’re not so cold in the mornings, I know — but, still, an easy remembering to sink into) and inside the package I found a review copy of a book. The first unsolicited review copy I have received (I think, unless any of you out there suggested that the folks at Seven Stories suggested that they send this book on to me,in which case, thank you!) and I’m extremely excited. Like, heart-thumpy, bouncy-house-on-my-birthday, first-date excited.  Like, talking back to that young Jen who wanted to be a writer, and before that, who wanted to spend all day reading (much to my sister’s chagrin (I’m sorry!)): look, I say to the young Jen, all that’s what we get to do now.  Reading and writing: that’s our job. And we both get a little clappy-excited, grinning into each other’s eyes, our own.


faded, scarred blue spiral graffitiThe chai is pretty well spiced now. No milk or sugar with this one, but maybe I’ve got some soymilk somewhere.  The spice is good with some emollients flowing through to soften and smooth the bite at the edge of my tongue.  I’m not sure why I’m giving you a play-by-play of my tea drinking experience — but I think it’s because I’m feeling good this morning.  Like, I woke up feeling ok. That’s a time for sharing, for gratitude and celebration: look, the cycle’s gone around again, and brought with it this buoyancy. Thank you.


It’s Tuesday, and I want to start a weekly blog calendar, or routine: like, on Mondays I freewrite (we get a pass at 5:30 on a Monday morning to write about whatever we want to because it’s a reward for getting ourself out of bed) and on Tuesdays the topic is Write Whole (WW) and Wednesdays the topic is Declaring Our Erotic (DOE) and Thursdays the topic is Voz Sutra and on Fridays, maybe, writing about the business of workshops or how strange it is to find myself running a business (such as it is) and growing it, or working to, and so on.  We’ll see how this all shakes out, but that’s it for today, and so it’s Tuesday, which means Write Whole.

The Write Whole workshops were the first workshops I facilitated for survivors of sexual trauma where we didn’t also (only) write about sexuality.  Initially, I’d offered the Declaring Our Erotic workshops, which were sexuality/erotic writing workshops for women survivors of sexual abuse, incest, rape — spaces where we who’d been wounded, trampled, split apart exactly at the same site as our desire lived, in/on our bodies — could write our adult, lived, consensual and complicated desire. I focused on writing fantasy, imagining new possibility in these bodies or in/for the bodies of others; we wrote the now, the future, the possible — we rarely wrote the past in those workshops.  We wrote the way the past infused our now, we wrote some of our struggle with sex, yes: we wrote our fully complicated longing, which included loss, triggers, fear, body memory, flashbacks sometimes. But more often than not, in the survivors DOE workshops, we wrote an enraptured erotics of the possible in a space where everyone knew how fragile that rapture was, how easily ruptured and torn, and there was so much beauty in the collective holding of that space.

(Note how I am writing DOE on a WW day: sneaky!)

It took a number of years after starting those workshops before I felt ready to hold a survivors workshop where the focus was our sexual trauma, and not our desire — and by hold, I mean be capable of holding the energy, holding the workshop focus, being present with the stories without being so scared that I can’t do my work as facilitator. Over and over, at the beginning, I had to go through this internal conversation: but I’m not a therapist; what makes me think I can/should do this work? And I’d respond to me (or my good good friends and colleagues would respond to me, when I was smart enough to talk these fears out loud): folks come to the writing workshops because they want a writing workshop,  not because they want a therapy group.  There are lots of therapy groups for survivors of sexual trauma.  There aren’t that many places where we can write just exactly as much as we want to tell of our stories (however we want to tell them: through memoir, fiction, poetry, sci-fi…) and be met as resilient survivors and strong, fierce, worthy writer-artists. My job was to trust that, and focus on the method, and come up with prompts.

Over and over, at the beginning (both of the DOE workshops and the WW workshops) I walked into the workshops afraid I wouldn’t be enough, and then got reminded, through the doing of the work, that it wasn’t me alone who would be enough: first, each one of us as folks living in the aftermath of trauma knows how to take care of hirself, and by holding our focus on the writing, we get to honor our instincts, our resilience, take care of ourselves and one another; and here’s the other thing: in the workshops, we net our energies together — it’s not just one person ‘holding the space.’ It’s something we do collectively, out of care for one another’s being and stories.

I get to be a part of that net, that holding, thank goodness.

Thank you for being there, a part of this netting, this holding us up: all of us.

Telling (Our) Stories

On recommendation of someone at UCSF, I’ve been reading Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.’s book, Kitchen Table Wisdom. Dr. Remen, an accomplished physician, survivor of chronic illness, and therapist, began many years ago to think about how best one might work with patients who were facing chronic illness and death.

Stories are powerful instruments — and they’re as common and consistent for us as breathing. Just as the Tales Grimm or the old Parables or the Ananzi or Coyote tales are recognizable as telling us something about how our communities think we ought to live, we have individual/familial stories that we tell ourselves and one another very consistently every minute of every day. We, as literate and verbal culture, are ever immersed in story.

What’s the definition of story? My online dictionary says it can be used as a noun or a verb. I loved multi-layered words like that. Anyway, one definition is “an account or recital of an event or a series of events, either true or fictitious.” Another is “to decorate with scenes representing historical or legendary events; to tell as a story.” (Circularity is always fun — and the dictionary is fraught with it, but that’s another story!)

We, many of us, have been told not to “tell stories” — meaning: don’t lie. So, we learn to tell different stories — ones that, because they make the folks around us more comfortable, are called truth. it’s hard work, once again, to retrain the grooves in our mind to accept the possibility that those early stories can come into the slot called truth.

We are a collection of our stories. the memories we lift out of our pockets to share with friends over dinner, or that we recite for ourselves in the thick of depression or in the bright morning of recovered joy —

Why are we talking about stories? In her book, a collection of anecdotes, stories, musings, recollections, retellings, Dr. Remen spins open the possibility of new knowings, new understandings of self and community and world and humanity. She tells of her own transformations throughout her life, many of these precipitated by truly being present with another person’s stories.

What does all of this have to do with sexual abuse, with trauma — or with sexuality? If we as a culture are immersed in story, then it follows (for me, at least) that we come to know, to understand, ourselves through story. When we allow ourselves to be, it’s possible to be transformed by others’ stories — by others’ ways of knowing the world, seeing the world, seeing possibility — this require vulnerability, a willingness to be open.

We don’t have to take on another’s interpretations of life or experience — but what happens when we are present with other people’s stories is that we can recognize that there exist different ways of looking at the world, looking at ourselves, at pain and struggle, at desire and longing , than we ourselves have yet come across — I notice this happening quite often in the writing workshops, a note of “I had never heard it described quite that way before — it was so surprising!” And there’s a shift, a splitting open, a new openness of our perceptions, and thus ourselves…

and what a way to move in to a new year — or this new moment.

As always, of course, I’d love to know what you think. What’s your relationship to story? If you’re willing, I’d be happy to post your thoughts/responses/ideas/stories here…