Tag Archives: familyluv

NaBloPoMo #5: Call the calling off off

Today’s prompt comes from last month’s Writing the Flood. I used Autumn in New York as the prompt (Ella and Louis can always get something going).

We had about 20 minutes, and this is what I wrote:

My brother-in-law does a great Louis Armstrong.  At almost any opportunity, this young Italian guy from Buffalo, NY, will deepen his voice to as froggy as it gets and bets out verses from some song or another — if he were here now, listening to this prompt, he’d be singing along, voice craggy, not making fun, just channeling. But it makes my sister laugh, delighted, and so he keeps on doing it.

On the night before their wedding, my sister and mom and I were all at my sister’s apartment, finishing up all of the everything that got left to the last minute to do. We made favors, put batteries into the forever candles, and cut mint green and persimmon Gerber daisies into the right size for center pieces, bouquets and boutonnieres, then bound up each small bunch and tied them with wire and then ribbon and tucked them in buckets of water in the refrigerator, which got filled like a florist’s case before the night was over. It was close to midnight, or after, and my sister was in hear hysterics. Each time she got frustrated with the bouquet and favor creation process she would run into the office, where her soon-to-be-husband was working on his own wedding projects, and say, Are you doing the playlist? You said you’d do the playlist. And we have to rehearse the dance! And after he nodded and reassured her that everything would get done, she’d come aback to tie up a bouquet and cry, This is why I didn’t want to wait to do this all at the last minute!

We three women, who have so much history and ache and persistent hope among us, were doing pretty well, considering the hour and the fact that we were barely going to get any sleep, and my sister needed to do something on the computer but she couldn’t because her sweetheart was using it to do whatever he was doing — something important for the wedding, he said — but it didn’t look like that to her and anyway he was supposed to be working on the playlist — and when are we going to practice our first dance?

We took a break from our bouquet-making, fingers raw and pink, and all went into the office. i stood back by the door, anxious, certain that they were going to start fighting soon — but then my sister’s fiancé stood up from the desk chair and took her hand. Both barefoot in faded denim, with faces lined with worry and longing, they stood together in the middle of the small room, and we were soon surrounded by the voices of Louis and Ella, bickering back and forth about tomato, tomahto, potato, potahto, and let’s call the whole thing off. This, I soon found out, was their song. Right away, Ryan sang along with Louis, even doing the trumpet bits, while guiding my sister across the carpet, suddenly rehearsing. She leaned into him, moved her feet with his, and laughed and laughed and laughed. In that moment, nobody else existed for them, and I could see who she was marrying: a man who understood her this way, who was industrious and light, who could encourage her to turn away from the doorstep of panic and anxiety — the place that has been her home in the aftermath of her trauma — and ease back to the joy always just within reach.

The danced and sang and laughed and held each other; my sister appeared to relax. Of course, as soon as the song was done, she asked him, But you are doing the playlist, though, right? And he was. The next day, after a small ceremony by a quiet pond in the middle of the valley outside of Los Angeles, at a reception where no alcohol was served in honor of the bride and groom’s sobriety, as well as that of more than half of the attendees, the floor was packed with jubilant dancers, after the just-married couple, now in gown and tuxedo, replayed for the gathered crowed what my mother and I had witnessed the night before. Better call the calling off off.

Radical self care as upheaval (part 3) – negotiating depression and its aftermath

(In this series of posts about radical self care and/through major life change, I am finally taking some time to find the words for what I’ve been dealing with over the last month, since the birth of my nephew. I am thinking about how and why we choose to survive and how much effort is involved, how and why we choose to take care of ourselves, and how to allow ourselves to walk with all that life throws at us with even a modicum of grace and celebration.)

(Just a heads-up: there’s some talk in this post about negotiating feelings of suicidality — be easy with yourselves and only read what you want to read, ok?)

And then I slid into a pretty serious depression. I don’t know how much I want to say about that here, except that it was both hormonal and historical — it grew out of the long grief I held about my own loss of motherhood, it grew out of shame I felt around my failures as a writer and facilitator and woman, it grew out of sorrow at how long it took for either my sister or I to become parents — all the work we had to do just to survive long enough for our soul’s to heal enough that we could imagine cradling another’s spirit with any determination or self-assurance, how unfair what our stepfather did was. It seems an understatement: unfair. Of course it is. And it’s true.

And then, too, I was dealing with hormonal shifts, a depression that I fall into for about two weeks a month, every month. I cried and cried, every day, for two weeks. I fell deeper and deeper into this depression, so far in that I started to get scared — what was the point of anything, anyway? What difference would it really make if my nephew didn’t have this aunt? It’s not like he would remember me — and I didn’t have anything really to pass on to him anyway, did I? Wasn’t everyone showing me that — the fact that I couldn’t get anyone to sign up for my writing groups meant that I didn’t really have anything to share. (I offer these as examples of what’s going on for me when I’m thick in the throes of depression — not because I really believe that they’re true or because I need them to be negated here.) The scary voice in me that sounds like despair and loss and nihilism took over; I couldn’t self-talk my way out of its arguments, I wasn’t telling anyone what I was going through, and I wasn’t doing the sort of writing that will often help me notice and shift this sort of struggle.

I didn’t see how it could ever be possible for me to live the sort of life I’d always imagined sharing with a child in some way: a life that looked an awful lot like the one I had as a very little girl living in the country in Nebraska (and that I tried to recreate in Maine) — a small life in a house with a big garden; bread rising in the kitchen; sprouts growing on the kitchen window; herbs drying from the rafters; pantry filled with jars of flours, seeds, nuts, spices; long walks through the garden and the surrounding fields or woods, talking about the plants that grew and what work they did in the earth, what work they did in our bodies;  hours every day spent in physical labor; hours spent writing; hours spent walking and reading — I imagined being an adult who knew about the earth, about our environment, and getting to pass on that learning to the child/ren in my life. And then that all fell apart, and I came to the city, and I would never have a child anyway, so what difference would it make if I never learned the names or the gifts of the plants that grew in this new place I now inhabited? What difference would it make if I never lived that long-held dream? I thought about how I wouldn’t ever really be free from what I’d been through, how it would always be with me, and how I couldn’t protect this new child from all the evils this world has to offer.

I knew that the depression was hormonal, but that knowing doesn’t really help — you can’t think your way out of depression, can you? In fact, knowing sometimes makes it worse; I’m thinking to myself, Jesus, pull it together, this is just hormones. And then, because I still feed bad, I become further depressed that I can’t talk my way, can’t rationalize my way, out of this feeling, can’t (at least, all alone) cognitively-behaviorize my way back to wellness.

I put on as good a face as I could for those around me, even when I talked, finally, about how sad and low I was feeling. And when I began to bleed, and the depression abated, I felt relief — and I felt really scared. What if that low came back? I thought about folks who survive horrors, who live a long time with the aftermath, and then kill themselves after twenty or so years after, who looked like they made it, and then suddenly got taken down by history, or by the long and awful work of living in the aftermath of what they’d survived.

I’m talking about this here for a reason: because so many of us struggle with depression, with these voices inside telling us that we’re worthless and that nothing will ever get better, and yet we feel profoundly isolated when we’re in the grip of this feeling. It seems like no one will understand us, no one will want to hear what we’re feeling, no one else has felt as bad as we are feeling. I want to undermine this experience of isolation. I want you to know you’re not alone in feeling these things, just as I’m reminded that I’m not alone whenever I talk to anyone else about depression.

I didn’t bounce into buoyancy, as I often do when the hormones shift. I felt better, but I also felt subdued — I needed help. I didn’t want the depression to fall on me like that again. Because I can’t really afford to go to an herbalist or a physician right now, I went to the internet, and found some ideas for dietary changes and supplements that folks use to mitigate the intensity of PMS or PMDD, and I am trying those now. Suddenly, I’m one of those people with a handful of pills they swallow every morning (thanks to an amazon gift certificate I got for my birthday). Suddenly I am thinking again (link here) about how to prioritize my own wellness. Suddenly I am wondering what it would look like to really take care of myself first, to put my health and wellness at the top of my priority list. Suddenly I am looking at food differently — as something that can support not just my physical but also my mental wellness, or something that can cause me mental and psychic harm.

The truth is, I don’t want to die. The truth is, I still have a lot of living and healing I want to do. The truth is, I am scared enough by how I felt last month — at a time when I should have been as happy as I have ever been in my whole life — to make some radical changes in my living.

Why does it have to hit me so hard before I decide it’s acceptable to concentrate on my own wellness, that I deserve help as much as those around me do?

(Tomorrow’s post: Walking along the Möbius of  major life transitions, and allowing ourselves to feel turned inside out as we do so.)

Radical self care as upheaval (part 1) – revealing what’s falling apart, what’s falling open

(In this series of posts about radical self care and/through major life change, I am finally taking some time to find the words for what I’ve been dealing with over the last month, since the birth of my nephew. I am thinking about how and why we choose to survive, how much effort is involved, how and why we choose to take care of ourselves, and how to allow ourselves to walk with all that life throws at us with even a modicum of grace and celebration.)

Good morning, beautiful writers. It’s a thick sheet of wet outside my window today. How is the atmosphere percolating where you are? What has the morning brought you so far on this day?

This morning I am all ache and storm. I am exhaustion that has taken root behind my bones and deep inside my eyes. I am thick with all I’m not accomplishing right now, full of how my scattered attentions are disappointing everyone. I cannot do enough. I am not enough for anything that needs me right now. I run from appointment to appointment, keeping my face a mask of Yes, Everything’s Fine — How Can I Help You? A mask of showing up. A mask hiding this question: When will it be time for me to rest? When will it be time for me to fall apart?

This morning I have pushed over to the other side of panic and anxiety into something that looks, and even feels, like a kind of calm, but is actually resignation. Oh right: I only have this many hours in my day. I only have this much attention. I only have this much energy. I am not able to do everything on that to-do list. Maybe I could have when I was 25 — stayed up all night working, then awakened with the birds to write and play with the dog and keep everyone around me feeling tended to and keep all the other plates flying high on their spinning sticks. Sure. But not now. Now the body is asking for something more.

Now the body and soul are asking for something more.

This morning I am thinking about what it means for your life to undergo an upheaval. I am thinking about radical self care, especially for caregivers, especially for those walking close alongside someone else’s struggle who also carry their own struggles.

In a week, I’m supposed to go to a conference in Houston and present about the power and uses of writing in community for caregivers and partners of trauma survivors. And yet, over this last month, I have been so focused on caregiving for those around me (and keeping my own shit together, even marginally) that I haven’t had the time or capacity to even think about how I would talk about that work, not to even mention put a brand-new talk together. I had applied to offer a workshop, and instead the conference organizers decided to offer me a 20-minute presentation, which meant coming up with slides and handouts for a talk I had never given before. Only now, six days before I’m meant to give the talk, have I had any bandwidth at all to give to this thing — I’ve been too busy living the exact experience I’m meant to talk about.

A month ago, my sister had a baby. This, in an of itself, is an upheaval — isn’t it? What about for a woman who thought her body was only made for damage and struggle? What about for a woman who thought her body was only for creating pleasure for others? What about for a woman who thought her body was only about destruction?

I can’t find–yet–the poetry of the miracle that is that woman giving birth to, and now cradling with fierce love, her own child.

Before the baby was born, already I had begun traveling the 1.5-3 hours (round trip) to visit her at least once a week, twice when I could manage it. Toward the end of her pregnancy, it was hard for her to drive, so I drove her to doctor’s visits, then also did some shopping, helped to clean up, and spent time with her at home. We have begun to connect, to regather into each other’s hearts, in ways that neither of us could have predicted or imagined — we didn’t even know it was possible, I think.

I began to slowly relinquish what I need to do to take care of myself, to keep myself well: taking down time alone, exercising, eating regular meals, reading, freewriting. I ate meal-replacement bars in my car while sitting in south bay traffic. I stayed late into the night in the south bay, which meant I would drive home late and go to bed later, which then meant I couldn’t get up early for my morning writing time — that necessary time was traded for sleep. Certainly there was no time for exercise, unless I was walking with my sister. What freetime I had was spent catching up on the work I was neglecting; much correspondence went unanswered, most phone calls went unreturned. I tried to show up for my sweetheart and the struggles she is navigating right now, and of course saw how I was falling short there as well. I felt like the juggler watching all the eggs she had in the air falling — one, two, three, four — splat — right onto the cement.

How do we take care of ourselves when those around us need more care than (we believe) we do? What does it take for you to pull yourself back from triaging everyone else’s needs to attend, again, to your own — to remember that we can’t be of service to another when we are running on empty ourselves?

(In tomorrow’s post: how we make time for what needs us, and how we allow ourselves, too, to create space for what we need.)

Day 1: It’s Writing Ourselves Whole Month…

Assata's Affirmation

Oakland graffiti of Assata’s Affirmation

I believe in living.
I believe in the spectrum
of Beta days and Gamma people.
I believe in sunshine.
In windmills and waterfalls,
tricycles and rocking chairs.
And i believe that seeds grow into sprouts.
And sprouts grow into trees.
I believe in the magic of the hands.
And in the wisdom of the eyes.
I believe in rain and tears.
And in the blood of infinity.

I believe in life.

from “Affirmation,” by Assata Shakur

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April 1 marks the beginning of both Sexual Assault Awareness Month and National Poetry Month, and so is also the beginning of what I think of as Writing Ourselves Whole month. (What should our Twitter hashtag be? I like #WriOursWhoMo, but #WOWM might be a little easier to remember.) My intention for this month is to blog every day, to find my way back into a morning writing practice, and to begin to find some words for what I’ve been experiencing since the birth of my nephew three weeks ago.

I have written some, here on the blog, about my relationship with my sisterabout our past, and about our struggle to get to a new and more-healed place now.

I am without words for the transition we find ourselves going through. I need poetry –the practice and the manifestation — now more than ever.

I have no words, yet — I mean, I am trying to find my way back into the place where I could possibly find words for the fact that my sister allowed/wanted/asked me to be in the room with her while she brought her son from the place inside her body to the place outside her body. I don’t have words for that yet. I don’t have words for how grateful I am that our bodies can safely inhabit the same space these days. I don’t have words for how in awe of her I am, having watched her labor around and deliver this child, and watching her unfold gorgeously into her mother-self.

Maybe WriOursWhoMo can help me find these words. This is a month for the poetry of what hasn’t yet been spoken, what we’re not supposed to say, what pieces of our experiences are ready to find themselves into language. This is a month to tap into the language of poetry — our own and others’ — in order to express what has, up to now, been unexpressible.

Audre Lorde, in her essay “Poetry is not a Luxury,” writes, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

So this will be a month of poems and invitations. This will be a month of tangling with the power of writing for those of us navigating long-term (as well as brand-new) survival. This will be a month of exploring and naming the intersection of poetry and trauma, a month of engaging poetry as an intervention in the trauma we still carry within us.

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One of the ways we’re encouraged to celebrate National Poetry Month is to carry in your pocket a poem you love, and, whenever you get the opportunity, share it with people you love. What are the poems you keep in your psychic pockets — the poems you turn to for sustenance, joy, hope, understanding?  This is one of mine:

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.

Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks

(Don’t go back to sleep. Keep writing. Your poetry will feed you, and will become the lifeline that someone else carries in their pocket, too. Thank you.)

grieving what we couldn’t do

Good morning this morning. Here where I am, there are three candles flickering in their glass jars, and the rush of traffic has begun to pick up on the highway a few blocks away; sounds like the tide coming in. The birds are still sleeping, like the puppy. What are the morning sounds where you are?

I am sorry to have been so absent from this space of late. Yes, I’ve been spending as much time as possible with my sister’s new baby. And when not there, with her, being functional in some way, I’ve been– well, crying, mostly. This has been a surprise. I knew that my sister giving birth would be enormously powerful and even triggering, given our history. I didn’t know it would tear open wounds of my own that I thought had long healed.

It’s been hard for me to write during this time; the stuff I’m trying to find words for is big and complicated and layered, and has to do with, among other things, my own loss of a child 12 years ago, and my relationship with parenthood, with mothering in particular. It took me almost a week after my sister’s child was born before I sat down with a notebook to attempt to write anything at all.

Let me not convey the impression that I’m not ecstatic about this small one who’s come into my sister’s life, her husband’s life, my life… my wordlessness has a lot to do with not being able to figure out how to articulate just how amazing is his very existence. Where did he come from? How can he be? My little sister is an amazing mother. She is patient and generous, she is worried and anxious, and she is wholly in love with this new being she finds suddenly outside of her body and cradled in her arms.

I don’t want to be anything other than happy right now. I don’t want to be envious or wrapped up in my own loss. I don’t want to be plagued with thoughts that maybe I could have done this work of mothering after all. That maybe, if I hadn’t had to spend two decades trying to heal, I could have done something more with this life.

When my ex-wife got pregnant, I had been away from the man who’d brainwashed and abused me for seven years; I didn’t understand why I wasn’t all better. She was capable of being a functional adult — why wasn’t I? Why couldn’t I show up better for this part of our lives together?

When I was in my 20s, I did not believe that I could or was meant to mother. I was afraid of harming a child, of being a harm to a child just by the very fact of my presence. It didn’t matter that I enjoyed spending time with kids or that kids enjoyed spending time with me or that I had no interest in hurting a child or that I hadn’t hurt any of the children I’d spent time with. I was afraid afraid afraid. Afraid I couldn’t show up for them, the way my parents turned out not to be able to show up for their kids. Afraid I wasn’t healed enough to be nurturing or spacious with a child. Afraid I was too selfish or narcissistic (as my stepfather had told me) to be a parent. Afraid my stepfather would make good on his threats to claim and violate any children in my life. Afraid I would never write again if I had a baby because I had no boundaries and few skills or tools.

And then there was a baby, an almost-baby. But he did not live. And I have been grieving him all over again this weeks.

What’s reaching out in me are the parts of myself that might have had a chance to flourish if not for being crushed by the heavy rock of my stepfather’s violence. I have spent the last 20 years chipping away at that enormous stone, and after all these years, I’m finding little bits of things still alive — withered and broken, but alive: oh, look, maybe, for all my self-protective storytelling, I really did want to be a mother. I could have been one, and I might have been good at that work, even in the face of all the negative messages I got about women who nourished and nurtured.

I keep imagining maybe I’ve done the bulk of my healing and then, wham, I hit into a brand new vein of loss and shame and grief, and I’m thick in recovery work all over again. Maybe it will always be this way.

What I am feeling these days is joy, yes — and also regret, and sorrow. And anger. I am angry that my big accomplishment in this lifetime is survival; that I have spent my whole adult life not building a family, not building a career or retirement or security, not writing books, not putting down roots anywhere, but instead simply trying to survive and heal from what was done to me when I was a teenager. This is my big work: staying alive in the aftermath. And today I am angry that this has been my life’s work, my magnum opus. I miss what could have been. I miss it in the insides of my arms, against my neck, in the places where my own child’s breath might have been, if I had been healed or functional enough to try again after that baby died.

It is not fair, how much work we have to do to keep going. It’s not fair that we have to devote time and attention to healing that we otherwise might have turned to creative projects or family or work or community change work or something, anything, else. It’s good and important and necessary work we do every time we choose again to persist in our healing.  And, I don’t know about you, but there are days when I wish I could have spent that energy on something else.

Today I will spend the day with a woman and man (my sister and her love) who survived long enough and worked hard enough to find their way to the place of enormous risk and love that is parenthood. And I will be with this small new human, just 10 days old, who only just learning what it means to have a body, to be in this lifetime. I will keep on learning with him.

(No particular prompt today: write as you are feeling drawn to write, ok? Find your way to some words. Thank you for the space you have made for your own healing, and the way you held on to the oldest dreams in you that persist in spite of the violences you’ve had to endure. Thank you for surviving, and for learning to do more than survive.)


soon he’ll be on his way to us

Good morning. When I woke up, the rain was falling in heavy, translucent sheets. Now, the rain has paused — the sun peeks out, and I’m looking for rainbows.

I’m often looking for rainbows. That, and four-leaf clovers. I’m a Pisces. We believe in signs and luck and serendipity.

This morning, the ever-shifting background image on computer’s desktop reads Trust Your Struggle. I take a deep breath, read it again, and then again. Trust your struggle, Jen. What does that mean? I have fifteen minutes before I need to be in the car to go south to see my sister and the baby still living in her body, the baby that everyone is ready to meet, most especially my sister. And it’s probably true that the one who wants to meet him next-most is his papa, but I feel like I come in a very, very close third.

I have barely written about this small one who is about to transition from one existence to another, from being in his mother’s body to being out in this terrifying, exquisitely beautiful world. What could I say to him? What can I offer? How will I or any of us be able to protect him, when there are so many dangers and his whole job is to grow away from us and find his whole path? I don’t say his name — it feels important to hold it inside my body for now. So I call him small one. His papa calls him Junior and little guy. My sister has names for him, I’m certain, that no one will ever know.

Maybe my mother has names like that for me, and for my sister — the names we had when she carried us. The names she gave us before anyone us had ever seen the color of our eyes. What if she had remembered to say those names before the monster got his claws into our bodies? What magic could have happened then?

I am trying to Get Everything Done before the baby gets here — finish all the writing projects and all of writing ourselves whole’s administrative tasks, write our grants, send workshop information to schools and colleges in this area and elsewhere, prepare for the workshops that are currently ongoing. Every morning I sit down to the computer and think, Ok, you have to finish everything. Then I freeze, or frenzy, and come up for air some hours later feeling frantic. What kind of a model will I be for this small one? Will I be someone they can look up to, or an adult who abandoned her dreams? I stop even here, thinking I should check my email, get ready to go down to see my sister, get in the shower, quit stalling. I have to finish it all: once he gets here, he’s the only thing I’m going to want to pay attention to. We want to front load all the goodness and connection. We want to load him up with love. We want him to know, in these first hours and weeks of this next phase of his life, that all that exists in the world is love. He will have years enough to discover that isn’t true — and in the meantime, he will get a foundational promise in his soul that then we will all of us endeavor to keep: you get to be safe in this world. You get to be honored and adored. You get to be fed and warm. You get to be exactly and only yourself. You get to discover and cry and laugh and play. Your boyness gets to encompass multitudes, all the masculinities and femininities. You get to be whoever you are.

Of course, I won’t get everything done before he emerges — most of these projects don’t have a “done” button, anyway; they are endlessly repeating and ever re-emergent. Like raising a child, I guess, is never “done.” This is the first child born into our family, the first for my sister or me. I will not tell you about what messages I got from my stepfather about any children I might bear,and I don’t know what he said to my sister — I will say that for a long time, I was afraid for any children I ever came into contact with. I will say that it’s a kind of miracle that my sister is having this baby. I will say that I think this child is fortunate beyond measure to get to live on the inside of her body, to get to know intimately the sound of her breath and heartbeat. Something will stop when this boy is born, and something entirely new will begin; I don’t mean his breathing and engagement with the world — I mean, more selfishly, that a kind of death that we were promised will unbecome, dissipate, dissolve into a wisp of smoke that we can just blow away.

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What is it that you’re frenzy-ing to finish? Could you take a deep breath and listen to what your struggle is trying to tell you? Where does your writing want you to go today?

Thank you for honoring what scares you today, and for walking hand in hand with that terror. Thank you for your presence and awareness. Thank you for your words.