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(nablopomo #5) the many ways you find to sustain your fierce and tender spirit

graffiti on brick -- group of people, joyous, sitting at a table set with bread and vegetablesGood morning, owl — thanks for joining me in the quiet. downstairs the neighbors are up, too, getting into their closets — sounds like it’s happening in our own apartment.

What are the sounds that are greeting you this morning?

It’s the weekend, and so I slept in late, didn’t get started with the morning writing until after 5:30. The alarm went off and then I spent a little time being quiet in my bed, having that stretch of just-awakeness where I think about the dreams I’m still not quite out of, noticing that it’s much colder outside the covers than beneath them, tustling slowly toward considering the work of the day. I have this conversation in my head almost every morning:

You love your writing time, Jen.

I know, but it’s so nice here, and I do need more sleep.

That’s true — but you love your dark morning writing time; you’re so sad when you don’t get it.

I know, you’re right.

I’m getting up.

Ok.

Seriously. Every morning there’s a little pullback, a little “do I really have to?” even when I’m headed out from under the covers to do something that I love and need. Maybe someday I’ll bounce out of bed, fully exhilarated the moment I open my eyes, tremendously excited to get to be at the computer at 4:30 am. Maybe. Someday.

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I’ll get November’s newsletter out today — in it, I’m going to remind you about these upcoming shindigs:

  • this month’s Writing the Flood meets on Nov 19 in San Francisco; this will be the last Flood for 2011, since I take a break in Dec, so we’ll have some special treats!
  • Also, there are two day-long workshops in Sacramento coming up on the 12th and 13th, Reclaiming Our Erotic Story (open to all) and Write Whole: Survivors Write (open to all survivors of sexual trauma, regardless of gender).
  • And I’m going to be giving a talk at UC Davis on Nov 15th about the liberatory uses of erotic writing (so nervous and so excited about this one)
  • Lastly, there are a bunch of new workshop offerings coming in the new year — Bayview Writers (general topic writing workshops in Marin) and Dive Deep (an advanced, project/manuscript-focused workshop) and a recalibration of Declaring Our Erotic, from weekly workshop to monthly weekend-day writing excursions.

I hope to see you out at one or more event in November! If you’re not already on the writing ourselves whole mailing list, you can sign up using the box there on the right side of the website (between the ‘upcoming events’ section and ‘most recent posts’ section).

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They don’t give us nablopomo prompts on the weekends, over at BlogHer; the weekends are for freewriting, they say.

Yesterday, during a coffee date, a new friend asked what the weekends looked like for me — what do you do when you’re not writing? she wondered. I gave a few answers, some possibilities, maybe beach time with the dog, maybe some hiking. The conversation moved on. She’s someone I got to meet during the Tomales Bay workshop, and I’m feeling so grateful for her, for all the women in my workshop, for these new writing-/transformation-centered connections in my life — our conversation got to be thick around writing practice, around what it means to be a writer, how we allow ourselves to make true space for our writing selves, how we learn to ask/expect others to hold that space as well.

When she asked about weekends, about non-writing possibility, I remembered a time, years ago, when my father had asked me this question. What do you do for fun, Jen? At the time, I couldn’t give him any answer besides writing. I was working for a Domestic Violence-centered nonprofit, volunteering with a queer youth organization, trying to get writing published, and writing regularly to figure out who and why I was. I had no serious hobbies, no sports that I played, nothing going on in my life that he could recognize as fun (or that I recognized as fun, to tell you the truth). I understood that it was a problem to just have writing as my only outlet, to stay so much with words alone, to be just so fully in my head.

I forgot about one thing, though: how much I love to cook. This weekend, I could have told my new friend, I’m going to spend some good time in the kitchen, away from the computer and notebook, in spite of all the emails that need answering, all the promotion that needs accomplishing, all the facebooking that wishes to occupy my every waking second — I’m going to do some real cooking. There’ll be some oatmeal-buckwheat-corn pancakes, oatmeal soda bread, chicken soup (starting with a new stock), maybe a new batch of puppy cookies, we’re good for now on homemade yogurt, so I don’t have to do that, but maybe a batch of beans for the week (the Mr. has been taking care of those, and they’re so yummy).

Cooking allows me to access a different side of my creativity, the part that delights in making something (and something substantial at that) out of what looks like nothing. I credit my mother for this, who knew how to stretch ingredients, who taught me about substitutions because we didn’t always have the funds to go shopping for the exact ingredient — she made do what what she had, and she made it good. From her I learned to appreciate experimentation and frugality, reading a recipe and changing it immediately to accommodate what I’ve got in the house. Experimentation, substitution, these make it feel like play, not like work.

Stretching other aspects of my creative self, that’s part of radical self care, no? Plus, time away from the computer, that can only be good for my body. We need many different ways of engaging with the world. This reminds me of that Rumi poem (these are excerpts):

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.


The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.


I would love to kiss you.
The price of kissing is your life.Now my loving is running toward my life shouting,
What a bargain, let’s buy it.

hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground

So today, the pup and I will go walking in the hills, then I’ll come back and turn on my Saturday morning NPR (car talk, wait wait — these are my liberal-adult equivalents of Saturday morning cartoons), clean up the kitchen, start the work of transformation, a few dry ingredients, a few wet, get myself differently messy, create something of sustenance.

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A couple of prompt ideas for you, for this Saturday:

– what creative play sustains you (or your character) besides or instead of writing; hear that question that my father asked: what do you like to do? What’s the physiucality of that activity like for you? Start there, maybe —

– read those selections from Rumi again. read them aloud. grab a line or a thought from there, or notice what arises for you, what voice or image or story, and start your writing there.

Always, you know it, follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

So grateful for the many ways you have found to sustain all the parts of yourself. Thank you for your generosity to your own fierce and tender spirit. Thank you for your words.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.

Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill

where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.

Don’t go back to sleep.

I would love to kiss you.
The price of kissing is your life.

Now my loving is running toward my life shouting,
What a bargain, let’s buy it.

FH-hummingbird-slider

allowing ceremony

graffiti: a white flower, a bluebutterfly and a big purple arrow, surrounding the words, "planting the seeds of change"It’s a Monday morning here, and beautiful — slow blue filling the sky, and I keep my eye out for the deer that like to stroll along the hill behind our apt building, munching on grass and weeds, keeping a kind of watch.

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Thanks to all who came out for this month’s Writing the Flood! We had a fantastic gathering of folks in a new, gorgeous, peaceful space over in Berkeley — I’m imagining, for a time, that maybe we’ll move back and forth between San Francisco and the East Bay for this workshop. Our April Writing the Flood meets on the 9th, which is the second Saturday of the month — on the third Saturday, I’ll be celebrating good friends getting married, then will head south for the Body Heat: Queer Femme Tour!

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This morning, I am thinking about the ways that we who have experienced trauma, in maybe any form, reinsinuate, reintegrate ourselves into humanity, into our communities, into something called family. This maybe isn’t writing that I can do on the computer — it’s too big and messy for the containment of typed letters and a little blog box. I don’t have an answer to this question; I still, often, feel outside of humanity — not above, but other(ed), unwelcome. That there are people, and then there’s Jen. That, too, the people around me know something about being human that I missed out on learning during the years our stepfather controlled almost every aspect of our lives, essential things about being a friend, being a coworker, being alive.

How do we undo this experience? I know I’m not alone in this feeling, even as that’s the point of the experience: to isolate. Those outside of the pack get taken down by predators.

And intellectually, I know I’m not outside of humanity — I, too, know that some friends, who are not trauma survivors, sometimes share this feeling of being outside, being other.

So I’m curious about the ways we are welcomed back into humanity, if we are at all. I think there used to be ritual, in the old religions/spiritual ways/ways of human engagement — I think there used to be ceremony to welcome, for example, the warrior back home. We need those rituals now. And what are the ways to welcome the raped woman/man/person, the child abused and neglected, back into connection and community? Rituals that would apologize and make amends even as they washed and said, we want you here, if you want to be here. What are those ways?

What are the ways you have found, to reengage with community, to again let humanity feel like a part of who you are (if, indeed, you ever felt inside of that experience)?

I have found it through political organizing, through social change work, through creative engagement/writing with others, through risky conversations with friends. I have found it sometimes when I was drinking, when alcohol let me drop that inside guard down — now I want to find the way to bring down that inside wall without need of drunkenness/selfmedication.

But there’s more that I want. I want a ceremony. I want a gathering of all the people, all my blood family on my mother’s and father’s side, friends of mine and my sister’s from elementary school,. jr high, high school, college, after college, friends and colleagues of my mother and father and stepfather (but not to have my stepfather there at all) and I want to be on open land near the sea, and I want candles and sunlight and blue sky, and I want us to tell our stories. All of us. This is who I was, this is what I went through after my mother remarried, this is who I am now. I want to spill it all out and be free of it, let it be out of my soft gut and low intestines and throat. I want to know that they all, all these people, all these connections, all this human family, help hold this story with me. What happened to us happened to all of us, happened to everyone who loved/s  us, happened to our whole community. When does our whole community, our whole enormous extended (human) family, get the chance to heal? And then I want to know their stories. I want to know what I can hold along with them that is too heavy for them to carry alone. That is a part of my experience and understanding of community and family. I want us to be fed well and joyfully, to have times to walk by the sea and lots of time to rest. I want dancing and hugging. I want someone facilitating the process, someone knowledgeable in the ways of loss and ceremony and human desire and spirit; I want to know that something bigger than us is there, holding us all, watching and grateful or at least nodding.

This is a big fantasy, but it could be a much longer write, with much more detail. Fantasy serves us very well sometimes, allowing us to step into desire that we can’t or might not want to or aren’t yet ready to act out or have come ‘true’ in the physical plane. Sometimes, fantasy is realization, too.

If there were a ceremony that you could design, that could bridge your way  (or your character’s way) back into a sense of community and/with humanity, what would that look like? Who would be there? Where would it be held, and at what time of year? Climb into the details, if you want to, and don’t call it ritual or ceremony if that’s triggering or doesn’t work for you — use the language that you prefer and like. Call it gathering or church or party or — give yourself 10 or 20 minutes. Follow your writing wherever it seems to want to go.

Thank you for your persistence and generosity of spirit. Thank you for all the creative ways you have allowed humanity to hold you, even when it has disappointed and failed you. Thank you for your words your words your words.

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listening to the body’s stories

graffiti: black wingsThis isn’t like that — this is like something else. (That’s how it begins.)

Last night, I went to one of Vanissar Tarakali‘s workshops, Do It Yourself Trauma: Healing principles and practices to support your personal healing process. I want to follow my own instincts, these desires to let others both help and witness me into my body, to do the incredibly simple but also simultaneously (sometimes) devastating work of just noticing what’s going on in my body and letting it be. Last night Vanissar talked about emotional first aid (she talks about it on her blog here), and then we practiced some of what she described: grounding into the body, physical practices to meet and/or engage with particular feelings, appreciating the body for doing all that it does to take care of us (and this includes our trigger responses, the stuff we do that we don’t want to do anymore because it doesn’t serve us but it did serve us once upon a time), lots more. The three hours flew by! Here’s a great thing she said: if you beat yourself up for the ways that your body responds when it thinks it’s threatened, that’s going to seem like a threat! Whew.

What do I want to say about this? This morning I am both more achy and less — the armor around my shoulders (which last night I began envisioning like a pair of shoulder pads, the kind that footballers wear) feels softened. Not gone, just malleable; not penetrable, but able to shift some.

Here’s some of what is coming up for me in several different arenas these days, as I am interacting more with somatics/generative somatics work: it’s ok to appreciate how my body has kept me safe, the instincts that my psyche developed to protect us. Getting angry at and ashamed with myself for freezing or walling up or “going away” or getting defensive or… (fill in your own — this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list for me!) only reinforces that I’m in a difficult or dangerous situation; it’s like beating a puppy for doing something you wish she wouldn’t do.

This is some powerful unlearning: what happens if I’m curious and appreciative about the triggered-response? What if I can just meet it with gratitude for its wisdom? Vanissar talked about how the body wants to tell us its stories — and we can allow it to, if we can meet ourselves in this way, if we can notice with gratitude and curiosity, instead of (or, sometimes, alongside the) shame and anger and frustration. What if I practice other ways of being in my body? Slowly, the instinctual responses become options, one of many different possible responses to a triggery or dangerous situation. This morning I notice the stiffness in my neck and back, and a kind of swollen energy around that part of my body — I’m about to go meet it with some hot water in the shower, be a little tender to the places I’ve often been frustrated with.

I want to write more clearly about all this right now, and, too, I am softened and sleepy and rushed.

It reminds me of what happens in the workshops, how there’s no wrong way to respond, how so much of what I appreciate about our workshop method is the invitation to notice just exactly how our writing wants to go, and when we follow that, when we teach our writing voices that we trust them, that our stories are trustworthy exactly the way that they want to come out, other stories begin to emerge, our writing shifts and stretches and expands: not because we’ve forced it to do so, but because we’ve met it with curiosity and appreciation and trust.

So what happens if I meet my body with those same principles? Interesting (!) how that feels so new and foreign, in spite of the fact that I’ve got that method for engaging with creative process embedded in my cells! Trauma recovery is creative process, of course, because humans are creative process.

Want to write about this some today? Are there ways that you or your characters respond in triggery situations that aren’t working for you/them anymore? What are those responses? Can you write into them with this energy of curiosity, noticing, witness? Can you let them tell their stories? This isn’t necessarily about writing what could be different, but exactly what’s happening now. Let that response/reaction feel the breadth of your attention, be all the way known.

Thank you for your brilliant, gorgeous, wise self, for all of the articulated and unarticulated ways that your psyche/body have worked to keep you safe and alive and here. Thank you for your endless and constant creativity, for your good words.

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following the signs

street art: a cut out of a soaring bird, with a human form soaring withinI don’t know if I could be more grateful for the weather we’ve been having.

House hunting is not one of my favorite things to do — it’s about as much fun as looking for a new therapist, with more anxiety, sometimes, at least for me. Every time we have to move, suddenly everything is thrown up into the air — where do we want to live? where could we live? we could live anywhere! And so we scan and consider rentals from Mendocino to Santa Barbara — it’s hard to stop looking at craigslist. And then there are the visits: where will we go look? do we apply here? why did we drive all the way up to Santa Rosa if we really don’t want to live here? but would we have known unless we’d taken that couple hours on one of our few precious weekend days this month?

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Writing the Flood is this Saturday! We’re meeting on the 2nd instead of the 3rd Saturday this month, so that we can have one more meeting in the Flood Building. A few spaces are still available (this will be a smaller group this month) — please let me know if you’d like to join us!
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The hawks are following me (or, I hope, I’m following them) — there are a couple in residence around the  neighborhood, and I hear one calling now. They spread their big brown wings and float over the ball fields across in the park, then up to the enormous pine tree behind the b&b across the street, and I feel welcomed, or blessed, or encouraged, or just grateful. Right: pay attention. Yesterday, on the way to my appointment with my former employer, with whom I wanted to talk about therapy and Lacan and Wittgenstein and writing and graduate school, the hawks lit on the lightposts like sentinels. Or cairns. This is my own meaning-making, I know — but that’s what we do every minute, we humans: we use and engage with signs, symbols, shorthands.

I’m walking through a heavy time right now. Old pain, old loss and sorrow and rage, is with me like it’s new. Of course, it isn’t just old: it’s right now. It’s present as I am. It’s present because I am. And I remember times, when I first started openly dealing with being an incest survivor, that I wondered if “it” would ever get better: if I would ever stop crying, if I would be able to smile again, if I could pay good and close attention to other people, if I would be ok. And it did get better — the pain lightened, shifted, took on different shapes and weights. And then it wasn’t better: but when it came back, the pain, it was different — I could do a different kind of work. I think you’ll understand this, but I wish I could be more precise in this language. Yes, it gets better and it gets different: and it’s ongoing work. It doesn’t ever end, because it’s us. It’s this life we’re walking through, that history and how we tend to it, the layerings of our selves throughout.

Because I still struggle with it, I want to dispel this myth that someday we get perfectly “fixed.” Someday it’s all done, we’re healed, and the rest of our lives are just about struggling with normal things: bills, drivers cutting us off in traffic, getting a promotion, that kind of irritating thing that your brother does when he’s eating.

But it doesn’t go like this. The work is ongoing, because life is ongoing, and we carry what we carry. How we carry it and deal with it changes, how we process and deal with it changes: for instance, I’m less likely to punch a wall or drink myself into a blackout at this point in my life. At one time, those were necessary survival strategies. Now I have more resources available — or, more accurately, there are more strategies that I’ll try now. I pay different attention to my own signs, the messages my body sends me.

So, right now, I’m going slow and eating well and resting and walking a lot. I’m talking on the phone, and doing lots of crying. I’m taking care of this now self and that (those) past self(-ves) as best as possible. The writing is coming hard, but still I put myself down in front of the page. That’s #1 on Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way Rules of the Road: “Show up at the page. Use the page to rest, to dream, to try.”

What about an exercise: Do you notice that you deal with old struggles differently now than you used to? What has that change looked like? What about for a character you’re working with — how do they engage with the memories that hurt them? How did they used to deal with those things? Write about the old ways with as much gentleness and respect as possible: those ways got us through to here.

Thank you for your patience with yourself, for your infinite capacity for strategizing around your healing and being in this life. Thank you for your words.

FH-hummingbird-slider

not back to the grind

graffiti of bright big orange orchid over a woman's faceBack at the day job today — but not back to the grind at all. Instead, I’m un-grinding, gently moving into a new rhythm.

Like most creative folks I know, I’ve got a day job that helps pay the bills; I had a week and a half off between the Xmas and NYE holidays. I had big plans for that time off: I wrote up a schedule that involved going to bed every night at 9 so I could wake up at 4 and do my morning pages, then a blog post, then spend a couple hours on one of the many writing projects that I have indefinitely on hold.Then, I’d take a break for lunch, and afterwards maybe I’d spend some time typing up the writing I did in the morning.  I’d blog! Organize my office! Get all my projects into very useful timelines!

Guess what happened? Of course! I got sick.

Not horribly sick — but the kind of sick that brings fatigue and aches. The kind of sick that doesn’t respond at all well to schedules. Rather than moving snappily through all my plans, checking items off my to-do lists — I slept. I took long hot baths and then climbed into bed for a nap. I spent hours reading Rob Brezny’s Pronoia is the Antidote for Paranoia (which I highly recommend to everyone. Like, right now.) and Women Who Run With the Wolves (which I’m finally finishing).  I curled up under the deep red shrug/shawl that my mom knitted and sent for Xmas and watched many, many movies (some terrible, natch) and cried and laughed. And when I was hungry, I baked. With wheat. Over the course of the last couple weeks, I made lots of cookies, several batches of biscuits, a couple batches of my french bread (which I got to share mostly with friends) and some soda bread. I made lots of soup from scratch. I hung out in the kitchen and remembered my own rhythms, outside of anyone’s schedule (including the Super Achieving Person in my own head).

I wrote a little, in my journal. Mostly, though, I didn’t write. I caught up on much, much needed sleep. I bathed myself in possibility and rest. When I’m sick, this doesn’t feel like indulgence.

Does anyone else out there recognize that voice? I’ll rest when I’m sick (or, the much more popular, I’ll sleep when I’m dead!). How do you respond to that voice? Or do you? I know, I’ve been proud of my ability to run myself into the ground — like it’s a skill! I find that when I’m at my most over-run (run-over), still, I often require sickness before I’ll slow down: like, I have to be forced to stop, sleep, eat well, replenish.

Not a terribly sustainable — because what happens is that, the busier and crazier I get, the more sick my body responds with. I don’t want to build that back-and-forth any further. So, that’s why I’m thinking about not getting “back to the grind,” now that I’m back to the day job after holiday break (with all my big visions for the new year, as I described yesterday). Instead, I want to think about not grinding at all — how to mesh all these gears together: artistic time, workshop time, day job time, friend time, love time, self time, dog time (we make the gear and then the dog will come!), enough sleep, good food, attention to finances… I’m hunting for new metaphors. Not balls in the air (I’m not a practiced juggler, so that’s just stressful!), not rats in the maze, but what? New sprouts in the garden, maybe?  I’ll keep thinking about this one. If my life isn’t a grind, then what is it?

Here’s a prompt: What’s the language you use to describe your daily life? Is it full of words and metaphors that invoke images or feelings of being chained, ground, wrenched, tied up? Is there other language you could use to talk about your now as you move into and toward your future? Let’s play with this some. Try this — on a sheet of paper, number the lines 1-10. (I always liked the numbering part of any classroom exercise about the best when I was in school.) Draw three vertical lines down the page, one about halfway across the page, one about an inch to the right from that line, one about an inch from the far right side.

1.                                                       |                   |                                  |             |<- edge of page

2.                                                       |                   |                                  |             |<- edge of page

Now, in the middle column, write a verb in the present tense. Fill in all 10 lines with a verb there; try not to think about this — just write the first one that comes to mind:

1.                                                       |  leaps        |                                  |             |<- edge of page

2.                                                       | crabs        |                                  |             |<- edge of page

Now cover that middle column with something else (your hand, a piece of paper). In the last column, write a noun (could be a common noun, like cow or foot, a proper noun, like Grandma or Las Vegas, or a feeling word (like love or hurt). Again, fill in all 10 lines with a the first noun that comes to mind.

1.                                                       |                  |                                  |  cow       |<- edge of page

2.                                                       |                   |                                  |  orchids |<- edge of page

Lastly! Fill the in-between column with “like” or “like a” and then fill the first column with “My life” (or His/Her/Your life, if that resonates better!). You’ll end up with 10 lines that read something like this:

1.    My life leaps like a  cow

2.    Her life crabs  like orchids

The best part about this exercise, of course, is that you end up with similes that often make little logical sense. Let yourself choose one of these and spend some time with it, writing into what it could mean!

And please feel welcome to share any good prompts and/or responses with other readers here!

Thank you for your patience with yourself, particularly with the parts of yourself that are so sure of themselves and others and then get knocked on their butts now and again. Thank you (thank you!) for your words.

FH-hummingbird-slider

we are elastic beings who are ever becoming new

"Go Gently" -- reverse graffiti
(check this out -- 'reverse' graffiti!)

5:43am — what would I be writing about this morning if I had the time, if I could be writing about anything I wanted? Last night the bus took an hour and a half to make a 45 minute trip because traffic on Lombard was so heavy — everyone wanted to get across the Golden Gate.  I was tired of words and wanted to be home. I nearly fell asleep on the bus, dozed a little, got a sleepy mouth.  Sometimes I get tired of words the way I get tired of the smell of my own body, with a kind of sickening overwhelm, because I can’t get away.  There’s no break for me from words.  Words are my only mechanism, only medium, only practice.  They’re my work and my hobby. Last night I came home and drank wine and ate the red beans and rice F! had made, then ate cheese and crackers, then ate ice cream. I watched tv.  If I’d turned off the tv, I’d have been left with words. I wanted to breathe without them for a little bit. I wanted to step outside of that structuring of my brain, which I didn’t, not really, but tv drugs you and makes you think you’re free. The clouds outside look like dark smoke in the early sky. The garbage truck looks like hungry.

The Monday night Write Whole workshop is going and gorgeous, even though the registration is quite small.  The Tuesday night DOE workshop I’ve had to cancel again because only a few people had any interest, only two indicated they’d register and only one followed through. What happens?  I had the idea that many people would want to take an erotic writing workshop, figured that, of course, when I opened the groups up to everyone, folks of all genders, that I might lose some of the women who’d wanted to take the women-only workshop, but I’d get a lot more people who didn’t fit or feel comfortable in those groups: that hasn’t been the case. Maybe it’s because I’m not known, I’m not advertising enough, I don’t have a book or a regular (like, consistent), sexy image: I’m not out there blogging and twittering and facebooking about sex, my own sex and others, I’m not really putting out that this is what I do.  And frankly, right now, it isn’t what I do: I haven’t been doing a lit of sex writing, except when I’ve got a workshop on.  Otherwise, what do I write about?  trauma. flowers. workshops.

The other day I thought maybe I’m interested in sex writing as a part of something larger, as a part of this project of making it safe for us to tell our dangerous stories, the stories that are risky to our identities, to our communities, our families, the stories that express our whole, fragmented, faceted selves, our full and messy realities. The initial impetus around offering erotic writing workshops was to make a space where (queer women) survivors of incest or rape or other sexual trauma could be in their lived, adult, consensual desire, without having to have it be always pretty or always a struggle.  We could write our messiness out.  We could write out the things that we’ve longed for that we haven’t had language for, or have very much had language for but haven’t what haven’t wanted to share with other people, haven’t wanted to share for fear it would be something we had to follow up on or something we’d never be able to do, for fear it wouldn’t sound like something we should want, given our gender identity or sexual identity or class or race or size… given how we’re seen in our groups, maybe, we think this thing we long for looks ridiculous. I don’t pitch the workshops as a place to get you published, a place — right now I just feel low.  I feel low energy.  The point is I don’t think I’d be offering erotic writing workshops as an end in themselves, as important all alone, but as a part of this larger process: telling societally-difficult stories. That’s what I believe in.

I’m interested in space for our breaking stories, the ones that stick in our throats, the ones that hide under our lungs, the ones we aren’t supposed to tell because our families don’t want to hear them or our communities can’t hold them with us, or we don’t think they can.

Here’s what I’m thinking about now: how trauma and creativity are inextricably linked. How trauma survivors are deeply creative beings, and then how creativity can pull us through to our next place as we come through whatever happened to us, its after effects.

Many of us already know this: creativity is in us.  It is us.  Without our creativities we wouldn’t have survived.  We wouldn’t have been able to come up with different solutions, different ways of dealing with difficult situations, wouldn’t have been able to read the street signs in our families, or wherever our experience of trauma situated itself over and within our lives, we wouldn’t have been able to navigate that landscape.  Every decision we make is a creative act. Decision is creative — it has the capacity to engender, make different, make new. Also: make another moment to breathe, make another opportunity for decision.

PTSD, its symptoms, grows out of our creative selves learning to adapt to horrifying situations. Once we are out of those situations, the process is to reengage our creative selves: learn/attempt new strategies, learn our own languages for our experiences and then express them, remember that we are elastic beings who are ever becoming new.

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(No) good choices: trauma, media madness and survival

(note: there’s talk of sexual violence in this post, and talk about Oscar Grant’s murder…)

De la Fuerza a la Libertad, Javier AzurdiaI have a standing meeting with my friend, Peggy Simmons (of Green Windows Writing Groups) on Thursdays at 4. We talk by phone, sometimes in person, about how our week is going, what’s happening with workshops or recruiting or connecting with organizations about the possibility of offering workshops (Peggy does amazing work with younger writers at The Beat Within, and with an intergenerational group of writers at her monthly writing group at Rock Paper Scissors in Oakland). It’s a time of peer support and “supervision,” for me, when I can be accountable for the work I’ve said I need/want to do with Writing Ourselves Whole, where I can celebrate successes and process what’s rough.

She texted me at about 3:30 to say that the Mehserle verdict was to be read at 4, so we started talking a bit earlier, just to connect, to hear each other. Peggy had followed the trial closer than I had, I think, and she’s still in Oakland, while I spend last night watching the events on TV and via twitter/facebook from my home in the North Bay, instead of being a part of the energy around Lake Merritt. We didn’t talk about work much, of course. We talked about the media’s consistent drum beat over the last week or so about the threat of riots in Oakland when the verdict was read. Over and over you heard it: Please, everyone, be calm. Be calm. Keep the peace. We don’t want any riots. Meanwhile, OPD was, can we say it, circling the wagons, calling in reinforcements, training for riot control. The Oakland government said, at the same time, that it respected the right of folks to gather, and encouraged people to stay home. Organizing messages that got passed along online said that folks should bring earplugs if they came out for the support rally/speakout/protest after the verdict was read: they’d heard there was a sonic control device that OPD was going to “test out.”

I don’t know about you, but when I’m frustrated, sad, disappointed, hurt, angry, and the only thing someone can say to me is, “Calm down, just calm down. Breathe. Just don’t get upset. Are you upset? Calm down. Take a deep breath. No one wants any trouble. Just relax,” over and over and over (when, in point of fact, I may very well be calm at the same time as I am frustrated, sad, disappointed, hurt, angry), I get a little crazy. I have that double-vision that trauma leaves us with, that looking at myself from the outside (wait, am I acting out of order? I’m just feeling angry! Don’t I have the right to be angry?) while also trying to be in my feelings; I feel the need to reassure the person (“No, no, I’m not upset, I’m ok”), to take care of them instead of attending to and dealing with what I’m feeling. So that the loss, the sorrow, the rage, it’s stuck in me while I’m taking care of the person who’s ready for me to fly off the handle — when at no point was I ready to fly off the handle, until they started with their control that looked, on the surface, like concern or worry for my well-being.

This is what I saw last night, have been reading about for many days: how folks locally and nationally were telling the residents of Oakland that, when the verdict came down, people just needed to be peaceful, just stay peaceful, just don’t start any trouble, just relax, whatever the verdict is. Now, first of all, this left me with a terrible sense that a disappointing verdict was almost pre-ordained; why all this preparation for disaster unless there was some expectation that folks would be reasonably furious? And second, that kind of mollifying speech has a crazy-making effect: no one was thinking about violence until you told me not to think about it, and why do I have to reassure you of my peaceful nature right now, when it’s time for me to mourn?

Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter — which means the jury believed (right?) that he was guilty of killing Oscar Grant, but he didn’t do it on purpose, he made a mistake, he mistook his gun for his taser. There was some gratitude that he was found guilty of anything at all, that a white police officer was found to be guilty of killing an unarmed Black man, as so often they are not found to be guilty, found not to be responsible for their clear and obvious actions. But involuntary manslaughter — it feels like a side-step, a slap on the wrist. It’s saying, even though there’s video evidence showing him holding his taser on the platform before he shot Oscar Grant, we the jury think maybe he just mistook his gun for his taser, which he carried on opposite sides of his person. It’s saying, “shit, we have to find him guilty of something, or the folks in Oakland are going to tear the city down, so here’s this little bit.”

What I saw very little of on the news last night, as reporters in and around downtown Oakland went nuts trying to find something to report on as the people gathered, connected with one another, shared their anger and sorrow at the mic (and the reporters said, “nothing is happening yet,” “no violence as of yet,” “nobody’s throwing things at this point,” “the situation here is very tense,” and the like). The reporters asked folks gathering, “Do you want peace here tonight? What do you think, is that going to happen?” They put their mics into prayer circles. They were aching for some riot to report on.

Sometimes, after the afternoons when I had to sexually satisfy my stepfather, he would pick a fight with me later that night, over dinner, about my schoolwork or some chore that I hadn’t done yet, and I had to sit calmly and discuss this fabricated issue while my rage mounted inside, just built and grew like volcanic flow. He’d ask, “Are you feeling angry?” And I’d have to convince him that I wasn’t — that was the game. There was no way for me to express my rage. My mother had no idea, for instance, what he’d demanded that I do that afternoon, and I was never to mention it in front of her. So I had to pretend to be calm, pretend I was all right, and when I showed any signs of anger or deep hurt, he suddenly wanted to talk about my defensiveness, how I couldn’t take criticism, and so on. My very justifiable anger had no outlet; my work, then, was to either press the rage down and go on mollifying him (for my own safety, and at the sake of my sanity) or explode in fury, hitting and digging at him (for the sake of my sanity) until he physically overpowered me (at the expense of my safety). There were no good choices.

There were no good choices last night, either, at least at the sites where the media was focused. They didn’t spend any time at the community gatherings, the open mics, the circles of support all over the city. They spent time putting their mics in the faces of the gathered at 14th and Broadway, wanting to hear only the “we’re here for a peaceful speakout, we just want peace!” and the “you watch, it’s gonna go down tonight” — as soon as someone started with an analysis of racism, started assessing the media’s pre-planned panic over riots as conspiratorial, the reporter dropped the mic, cut the connection. No one asked why literally hundreds of cops in riot gear were necessary, blocking the city streets and containing the ‘protesters.’

I’ve been ‘contained,’ that way, held by force ‘for my own good.’ What I know is how turned on my stepfather got every time he had to use all his physical strength to restrain me, how much he enjoyed the opportunity. The cops in downtown Oakland got what they and the media had been aching and agitating for: a small riot, some protesters who got arrested.

Folks have a right to their rage and sorrow, and have a right to express that loss. Folks have a right to assemble, a right to question our government’s actions, a right not to make others feel more comfortable. We each of us have a right to the full breadth of our emotions — enormous loss, the joy and possibility of connection in community, and then fear and rage. All of it at the same time. Please don’t tell me to shush, to calm down, to be quieter with my feeling.

Please keep speaking out. Get to the open mics and the speakouts, write out what’s happening in your heart and share it with others, if that feels right to you. Turn off the tv and the media madness, unless you’re using it for your own creative ends. If deep breathing before you spit your slam piece at the mic is what you need, then do it. If what you need is the thick noise of a thousand birds crackling their waking at sunrise, then find that.

The folks in power have few answers — and what they want is to control the dialogue. I know you know this as intimately as I do. We can step away from them, form our own circles, begin again.

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12/17: Holiday Dirt: fecund new erotica! A benefit for writing ourselves whole…

Please help to spread the word! xoxoxo

Writing Ourselves Whole presents
~Holiday Dirt: fecund new erotica~
a benefit reading and celebration!

With special guest Carol Queen!
Featuring Alex Cafarelli, Lou Vaile, Amy Butcher, Renee Garcia, Jenn Meissonnier, Blyth Barnow and Jess Katz!

Burlesque! Sweet treats! Chapbooks!

When: Thursday, December 17, 7:30 SHARP
Cost: $10-50: sliding scale, no one turned away for lack of funds
Location: Center for Sex and Culture, 1519 Mission Street (between 11th and South Van Ness), San Francisco, CA 94103

Your winter holidays shaping up to be a bit too wholesome? Never fear — join Jen Cross as she presents these fierce new works from the Writing Ourselves Whole workshops, sharp and sexy writing that will delightfully sully your holiday spirit and open your mind to all sorts of new reindeer/dreidel games!

Celebrate risky writing and readings — let us inspire your erotic imagination.

~~ Can’t make the reading on 12/17? You can still help writing ourselves whole! We are raising funds to pay for our workshop space: whatever you can give will help! Click the link/button below to use PayPal to send your donations. Thank you so much!





A fundraiser for Writing Ourselves Whole (Declaring Our Erotic/Write Whole workshops), which exists in the service of transforming trauma and/or struggles around sexuality into art, and creating spaces in which individuals may come to recognize the artist/writer within.

Holiday Dirt: fecund new erotica, 12/17/09

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Podcast Answers – Day 3: Can art heal?

Last Monday I committed to posting longer, more well-thought-out answers to the questions that Britt Bravo posed to me during our Arts and Healing Network podcast conversation a couple weeks ago. Welcome to day three!

3. Do you believe art can heal? Why?

(Whew — this is a big one!)

How alive are you willing to be? Yes, I absolutely believe art can heal. Why? Because it has done so for me, and I watch it work for others.

Let’s start with definitions, because I’m so fond of them.

Heal: My dictionary says it means, first, “to make a person or injury healthy and whole.” A later definition in the list is “to repair or rectify something that causes discord and animosity.”

(and what about a definition of art. Can we look ‘art’ up in the dictionary and trust what the book says? Aren’t there whole branches of study devoted to defining art? Let’s try it anyway. My dictionary first defines ‘art’ as ‘the creation of beautiful or thought-provoking works, for example, in painting, music, or writing; beautiful or thought-provoking works produced through creative activity.’ Granted, to truly understand this definition, we’d have to come to an agreement as to what ‘beautiful’ means. But let’s hold off on that and know that we each have our own sense of that part. A later, and interesting, part of the definition is ‘creation by human endeavor rather than by nature.’)

See Pennebaker’s studies of college students at the University of Texas at Houston, who go to the health clinic less frequently after they write expressively about traumatic or difficult experiences. See Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, encouraging a “recovery” of and through creative expression. See even Live Through This, a collection of essays by artists who’ve battled self-destructive urges using creativity and artistic expression.

Trying to say why I think art heals is similar to the struggle folks have had defining art at all – I don’t know exactly why it works, I just know that it does.

The creation of art enacts release, transformation. The exposure to art proposes different ways of thinking, feeling, being in the room/world.

Art makes (a) way. Art is what’s possible, you know? Someone, a brave and engaged poet, said in one of my writing workshops recently, “You can say things n poems you don’t really say in casual conversation.” Music brings a whole new emotional strata to words, story, poetry – or allows the listener an evocative aural experience that’s other than language. Visual art allows for expression of emotion, idea, truth, possibility that’s outside the linguistic realm. We need to get away from words sometimes. Dance, movement, drama: these arts reintroduce us to our/the body…

And so what does it mean to heal? Not to be bleeding. To have the wound grown over, physically mended.

this is your brain on artSeeing/hearing/experiencing artistic expression (poetry, jazz, painting, photography, short stories, dance) often brings up in me the sense that I am not alone, that I am connected to the creator of that work as well as just simply connected to a wider universe outside of myself. The sense that maybe I can be understood, that there are others who “get it.” (as when I read Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina – a healing experience for me as a writer and as a survivor).

Why do I believe art can heal? Because I myself am still alive and functioning – I chalk that completely up to writing. (I’ll say more about this on Friday!)

It is my experience that we heal when we transform a wound/-ing—either physically, through the body’s regenerative capacity, or psychologically, though an alteration in our understanding of an experience, our ability to express it fully (if not concretely), our sense of being heard and understood. All of these contribute to/manifest healing.

Specifically as it relates to writing, I believe that creative writing and freewriting gives all of us access to a new relationship to ourselves through an alteration of our access to language! Artistic creativity can break us out of commonly-used metaphors, the straight-laced language of many workplaces, the saccharine possibilities offered by Hallmark and TV after-school specials. Breaking away from the rules of grammar and sentence structure can leave us feeling a little bit wild and wrong, outside of school, outside of what’s “right.”

This is something I wrote six years ago, in an essay about the uses of metaphor as an erotic, artistic and embodied reconnection with self, for sexual trauma survivors:

“This is about my stepping back into language by swimming away from the abuser’s so-called “logical” sense. This is about a writer whose words fell out of her mouth one at a time, just one at a time, until she thought she had none left. She turned to find them and was met with the blank bright face of silence. Powerful, uncommon metaphor requires attentiveness, a willingness to play, a willingness to risk: all things that those in power seem to wish to squelch in we who are the victims of their abuses. Metaphor can collude with silence, in its occlusion of some aspect of a concept or entity, but it can also be the opposite of silence: speaking truth to power in a fresh and erotic way, which power cannot help but attend to, if even for the instant of metaphorical resolution. And an instant’s all it takes to change the world and ourselves.”

When finding a way to express difficult or marginally-socially-acceptable things (such as sexual trauma or sexual longing), art (its creation and its very existence!) heals in that it provides outlet and inlet, deep risk and safety, camouflage and exposure: it is large, contradicts, contains multitudes, just like us, as Whitman urges & reminds us always.

So? What do you think? Do you agree that art can heal? Why … or why not?