Tag Archives: loss

“I had something else in mind to do”

There was something I wanted to keep dreaming. I keep the lights off, light the candle, dim the screen on the computer monitor, start to type. Can I find it again?

The therapist says to me, you are so afraid. She asks about my anger, and we end up talking about fear. I am afraid my mother will leave me again, I am afraid my stepfather could still come after me, I am afraid of failing and of succeeding, I am afraid of being too much and not enough. I think about the small one in me, still so afraid, probably 12 years old, that kid who was so angry. Something got stopped there, around her fury, her sorrow, her confusion — wait, this isn’t really happening, is it? He’s not really going to talk to my mom like that? He’s not going to be allowed to talk to us like that, is he? She’s going to call him out, she’s going to challenge him. This isn’t going to be our life.

Didn’t I think for a little while that maybe that wouldn’t really be our life?

I have been thinking about regret, about how much I imagine now that I might have been able to do with the last 20 years of my life if I hadn’t been, first and foremost, focused on surviving.

Yes, I know we get to be grateful for the places we get to eventually — we get to be grateful that, eventually, we heal enough that we can find a way back into intimacy. We can find a way back into love. We can find a way back into these bodies that have carried us around, and even through hell. Eventually we find a way home, into ourselves and our real lives, if we are lucky and persistent and don’t die in the meantime. Please hear me: this isn’t about self pity – I just feel sad.

When we say they steal our souls, steal our lives, this is what we mean — they impact what we can do with our capacity, our possibility, our incipience, our nascence. They leak their barrels of crude oil into the complex and just-becoming pond that we were, they poison all of the very many different selves we had before us to possibly become.

And so, instead of getting to focus our energies on becoming one of those many selves, instead we spend our years cleaning the pond, trying to remove the oil. First coming in with big booms to isolate and clear out what remains of the spill en mass, taking away the biggest clumps of poison, soaking it up into some kind of nontoxic material that can hold it safely away from us, then we wipe off the biggest animals, the ducks and muskrats and deer and raccoons; one by one, wipe out eyes, wash and wash until most of the oil is gone. We clear away what died in the soil, after spending years trying to fertilize, heal, bring it back to life. We spread out fire-retardant material, we post sentries and guards at the edges of the pond, all around, trying to keep watch on all sides, wanting to keep out anyone who might want to pollute us so badly again. Sometimes we are successful. Sometimes we are not — but the energy expended is still the same.

We spend years wondering why anyone would want to do such a thing to such a pristine and needed landscape.

We teach ourselves biologics, become environmentalists, scientists — we learn to develop little animals that will feed on what’s left of the poison, that will consume what molecules are left in the water and will seek out the bits that fell to the floor of the pond, permeated the water, soaked into the sand, coated the tadpoles and minnows and frogs and turtles, got inside their mouths, ate into the grasses and pond marsh and tilted the ecosystem toward death. We spend the bulb and blossom of our lives just trying to clean up a toxic waste site.

We watch our friends come into full flower: making connections, reaching out, writing books, making marriages and families, developing their craft, developing their skills, developing themselves; we watch them building careers, and wonder what is wrong with us. But we are still cleaning up the superfund site left inside of us. We are painstakingly wiping off every blade of grass and feather of every bird that is a necessary part of our inside selves. And the oil never is completely eradicated, we can’t clean it all up  — some of the areas impacted never recover, never bounce back, never become what they ought to have been able to become. And then we simply have to mourn their loss, grieve what they might have been. Meanwhile, the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain … and also, meanwhile, there are other oil spills everywhere, meanwhile those who polluted us are allowed to continue with their devastation, meanwhile the balance of power is not upset, meanwhile you and I spend years teaching ourselves and then teaching others how to clean up the mess that our perpetrators made of our souls, made of our lives.

What if there was something els we had in mind to do?

There is a Dorothy Allison poem that lives in me — it was written in the aftermath of the homophobic murder of a lesbian in Boston, who was splashed with gasoline and set on fire. In the poem, the narrator imagines the voice of that woman who’d been alit, “This is not all I am / I hd something more in mind to do.” (From the poem “boston , massachusetts,” in the collection, The Women Who Hate Me)

Something in us screams this as well. This is not all I am. I had something more in mind to do. I wanted to be more than a survivor, more something that needed to be healed. We are forced, though someone else’s actions, to turn our precious attentions, to turn the energy of our one wild and precious life to the effort of cleaning up someone else’s mess — and for may years we feel like that mess is us. I felt like that mess was me. 20 years — half of my life so far. What if I’d had something else in mind to do?

Some choices are made for us. But sometimes — eventually — we get to make different choices for ourselves. We clean off the last feather of the last duck, we have rehabilitated the wild grassland that was so devastated, roped it off long enough that there’s new life beginning to emerge, the treebirds have begun to return, we can see bees and butterflies  in the wildflowers that have begun to blossom again, little fish have come back out of hiding, eventually, we can be restored.. The landscape, the habitat, is never returned to exactly the state it was before the disaster — but it can heal.

I know I’m taking this metaphor too far, but I can’t stop today. Rehabilitating a wild ecosystem is an enormous undertaking, one that takes time and money and resources that we might have otherwise devoted to other efforts, other work, other interests, other curiosities. And it’s an effort that often goes almost wholly unseen.

And it’s one thing if we are rehabilitating something in the aftermath of a natural disaster, but instead we are trying to take back what another human being — or, sometimes, a whole society — decided to try and ruin, to take for themselves, to spill all over and into and leave covered with his garbage. We, the ecosystem, the landscape, are not garbage. We are not trash, and we deserve all of the effort at cleanup. We deserve to have every bit of our ecosystem attended to during the cleanup process — every microbe, every biological organism, every single-celled paramecium, every shellfish dug into the mud, every clump of wild rose, every spray of tidegrass, every layer of water that expands and contracts through winter freezes and spring thaws and the hot labor of summer — every bit of ourselves deserves attending to. And the truth is that we might have done something else with all of that time and attention. And it isn’t fair. And yes, we do it anyway. We ought to have been able to do what our classmates or neighborhood friends did and just turned our attentions outward, toward our curiosities, our growth and potential, we ought to have just been able to sit back and nurture the wild complexity that was our inner self and, while continuing to tend to all of the layers, inner and outer, deep water and treetop, birds and fish, then live into the complex diversity that would emerge in us and of us.

Do you understand what I am saying? I am trying to find a language for what is stolen from us — actually taken. It’s not our souls — our souls are always with us. What’s stolen is our time. We have precious little time in this life, and that is what they take from us. That is what is irreplaceable. Our bodies and hearts recuperate, because we are extraordinarily resilient, because we are capable and adoring, because we don’t take no for an answer from the bits of inside self that want to give up and die. Many of us don’t die. But our trajectories are forever altered. Our lives are interrupted, turned. Our sovereignty is inflicted upon, eroded, the life we were becoming gets aborted, in favor of cleaning someone else’s mess.

They don’t have to clean us up, those who wreak the havoc in the first place. They’re off in their lives — maybe unimpacted, maybe continuing to create destruction elsewhere around the world, and in and on others, maybe confined to a cell or in the absence of other victims, having only themselves to desecrate. But they are not the ones who have to clean up after themselves. What would that look like? What would a system of justice look like that would demand that those who perpetrate intimate violence have to make it possible for the mess they made gets cleaned up — and they are on the hook until their damage is righted? Not that we are property that has been damaged or broken, but that we are a habitat that needs to be restored.

Of course it’s not too late — it’s never too late to be the selves we might have become. e.e. cummings is said to have said, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” We become hybrid — old and new selves, old and new growth, and we take strength from the labor, the effort, the attention paid, lessons learned, from blisters and aching backs, from sorrow at what has been lost, and joy at what emerges from the ashes. For life persists in the aftermath of destruction. That’s what they can never fully kill, and what brings us rising to the surface, again and again and again.

belong?

graffiti: text "art does belong" and a stencil of a person's face and then the spray-painted words, "australia jails kids"

What is belonging? To what or to whom do you want to belong?

I have this feeling often, of being totally unmoored: without anchor and belonging nowhere and to no one.

That’s some trauma aftermath: my intellectual self understands that, but the other selves just feel lost and sad.

What would it look like for you to belong just exactly the way you imagine/envision? Can you take 15 minutes and write it, tell it to the page?

We are flawed and magic

So.

I haven’t been doing that well, lately. I’ve been triggered with loss and sorrow and rage. September does this to me a lot, and at the beginning of this September, I was in New Hampshire and Vermont, the very places where I began the break from my stepfather and his extreme control and abuse, back in 1993.

Somehow, this year, while I was driving back and forth on i-89 from Lebanon, past Hanover, to Plainfield, while the sun rose through the thick early-fall fog sweltering over the crevices in the Green Mountains to make it up for the day’s Power of Words offerings, and then back down south (through the nearly indelible dark) to my friend’s apartment for good if abbrevited conversation and sleep, I managed to drive myself right back into the past – right back into that 21 year old convinced both of the world she’d been trained into and convinced that there was nothing left to her future but utter soul-destruction if she didn’t manage to get away from the man who’d decided to turn her family into his harem; when the man she loved had given her an ultimatum (him or me, her boyfriend said, because that was what it looked like), she chose her boyfriend and was (don’t ask me how – it’s still a kind of miracle to me) able to pick up the telephone and speak into her utter terror: you can’t do this to me anymore.

It began a process of extraction. I realized, during those few days earlier this month back in that countryside, back on those roads (filled still with the echoes of all my sobbing, traced still with the fear that he would send someone to destroy me, thick still with the impossible desire that had begun to bubble in me for a new way of living, for women, for change), that I’m still extracting myself from those old horrors.

1993 is 16 years ago. Sixteen years. Sixteen years. Why am I still in this struggle? Why isn’t it done yet?

This was the sort of question I was tormenting myself with over the last month
(alongside the old sorrow, of course, trying to reach back to that 21-year old and let myself finally forgive her, forgive me, for all that she had to do to get to where she could make the break that her mother couldn’t make, her father hadn’t made, no one had stepped in to make for her. I didn’t have to crawl through a river of shit literally, but I sure did have to drag the people I loved more than myself through it)…

What good does it do to ask why you’re not over it yet? What does that question even mean? It’s not actually get-overable, this history. It’s of me now. Right?

When I’m thick in the sludge of shame and possibly-irreparable damage, depression laced with terror, sorrow that my sister and I still struggle so hard to share space, to be in the same room and really look at each other, what difference does it make why I’m not ‘over it’ yet?

And all the while, I’m trying to be functional. Functional. Show up at my day job. Truly ‘show up’ (heart and all) at the workshops, be available to hold space for us as a group of survivors writing, be open (then) to not being perfect at it. I try to show up for my husband…

And otherwise, I slip out through the thread of things. I leave conversations. I don’t return friend phone calls or emails. I leave Facebook alone, as I don’t want to be reminded of all that I’m missing, all that I’m not accomplishing, all that I’m not I’m not I’m not…

My friend asked me, when I was finally able to reach out, as the deep trance started to break and I felt my heart start to reopen again to the now: “Who can talk to you when you’re in that place?”

What? What a fantastic question, I thought, and told her. Most of the time I’m asked, Who can you talk to when you need support – but she reframed it. And I saw that there were people in my life who could meet me in the mire of shame and self-hate, who could speak kindly and gently into the midst of those old voices. And I felt a little less alone.

I’m not fixed yet. It almost feels like a confession I need to make. Now that I’m feeling better, stronger around all those fragments I still hold of me, I remember that most of us aren’t – that for so many of us, there’s no such thing. There’s learning to maneuver anew, with these scars. There’s laughing anyway. There’s learning new arms for self-care, like with the bunches of rosemary carted to every workspace, just to clear the air.

These are the voices of the depression, the old training, when I’m in the thick of it: I question who I think I am, offering writing workshops for sexual trauma survivors – and then, I think it’s unprofessional to reveal how I’m really doing. I think I can’t possibly tell my friends – they’ll think I’m pathetic, they’ll talk about me to other people, they’ll ask if I found a therapist yet.

Please note: No friend has ever responded to my sorrow this way – it’s the learning of that decade without a close friend, a pre-teen girl taken into the lair of a sociopath and trained away from the sort of socialization we’re supposed to get as teenagers, about how to have intimate relationships with people who aren’t sex partners. I only learned to relate to people through sex. It was the only option I had for intimacy outside of abuse, and I took it.

Here from this place back where my peripheral vision is wider (here, where I can see out into the music and mystery of a hawk floating over Market street, above the Flood Building, signaling to me that we’re still here, we’re still full of possibility), I know that it’s ok not to be ‘fixed.’ I know that we’re all struggling in different ways to stay engaged with this thing called humanity — I know it’s ok to be human. Imperfect.

I want to touch that 21-year old I was, hold her hand in the impossibility of her solitude, remind her it’s ok that she’s human: that she needed an ultimatum from a lover to open the door to that previously-unimaginable action, to pick up a phone, shivering, and say, No. Enough. That it’s ok that she couldn’t just choose herself: she had to choose (for) a lover. Of course, at that time, she’d (I’d) been trained into such a devaluing of self that that was the only option—and she took it. We took it. I took it. And I survived.

We do what we have to do. We are flawed and magic. And we survived. And I am sorry and I am grateful.

what do I want to tell you in 10 minutes

060109

What do I want to tell you in ten minutes? That I was catapulted into shame-slavery and prosto-destitution is only one strand of this miner’s fabric. There’s the way I used to cuddle and curl under a yew bush (that still today I spell like “ewe,” like mama sheep, and so maybe she was a haven, too, in her funny fur curly like the dark green fronds of the bush)         anyway         how the yew bush grew like a cave up and around space, and I could sweep brush the dirt floor, bring books, shelter myself early from my mother’s storms.

Sheltering self in words, which were always a haven, as far back as I can remember, although I don’t think I can say they’re natural, at least they’re clean.

The details and rough sketch outline include three houses in and around middle-Eastern Nebraska by the age of 6, and about four more by the age of 10, and then there was only one even if that one didn’t include my father         he had his own home         and it was an hour southwest from The One         down the black ribbon of interstate 80 that cut through dark green cottonwood and oak and tall rushes living the sides of the highway, filled with red-winged blackbirds         cutting across the broad flat damp sandbar of the Platte River and all its attendant mosquitoes and the echoes of sandhill cranes that were never there on the river when we rushed by in Mom’s burgundy-red Mercury Monarch or dad’s too-dull-bright orange and white-capped Volkswagen Van         that road led back and forth to Dad’s house, not grandmother’s (over the river and through those woods)         but slowly the road began to disintegrate, disappear         for lack of use         they’re still rebuilding every time I go back         more construction, more hope

once we entered The One house the last one there wasn’t any room for another         the town was too small for the both of them         and one turned around and let himself out.