Tag Archives: morning write

poems can blossom truth inside our hearts

Stencil of a woman in a dress, dancing, head thrown back, hair hanging down, next to the words

(Poetry is an extreme sport – Miss Tic)

Good morning, good morning.

Outside, it’s traffic and crickets. I’m waiting to hear whether the owl will be back this morning – she was here on Friday, and instead of writing a post I got distracted by her.

Well, by her and some old morning writes. I went looking for what I was saying here–to myself, to you–five years ago, or seven. That’s one thing about regular journaling–getting to look back, see what you were saying before, what you felt like before, what you’re struggling with that’s the same  and what is new — you get to see how far you’ve come.

In my case, I got to look back on a relationship that felt unfixable at the time I was writing, that felt like kudzu or like I was in the ocean at a rising tide stuck in seaweed. I spent so many years trying to communicate with someone who literally could not understand the things I was saying — and, let’s be honest, in the converse, I also couldn’t, it seems, understand the things he was saying. I could never quite understand what he wanted. And  I kept trying, kept getting smaller, tightening myself up until I was knotted into a ball at the bottom of a bookbag, just a sticky thing with dust and hair and old gum wrappers stuck all over me.

And then I got the idea that maybe , that maybe, I didn’t have to stay there. Maybe my job wasn’t to stay in this relationship until the end of my (or his) life. Maybe I didn’t have to walk a hundred miles on my knees, repenting. I only had to let the soft animal of my body love what it loved. And then poetry started to sneak in to the sides and corners and crevices of my skin, my psyche, touched the parched places inside me, the places that told me I had to stay, I had to keep working, I had to keep trying to be the right thing for this person. 

(The chimes sing a little in the early breeze.)

Slowly, so so slowly, it came to me that I didn’t have to keep beating my head against a brick wall. Neither one of us deserved to be this unhappy all the time. He deserved someone who didn’t have to turn herself inside out in order to be right, feel right, be what he said he wanted. He deserved to be with someone who didn’t need to deny fundamental parts of herself in order to stay with him. He deserved to be with someone who didn’t need to swallow her tongue most days, or risk getting into yet another fight.  

There were poems that opened my eyes , the eyes inside my heart, or that turned my eyes back away from looking into a future that felt bleak. There was a Rilke poem that shifted things in me. John O’Donohue. And Mary Oliver, of course, Poems can do things that regular prose can’t. Poems sing in through the side door. They tell all the truth but tell it slant. They don’t hit us straight on, but blossom truth inside our hearts, our bellies, anyway. 

What I’m trying to get to is the fact that something that feels so entrenched, unchangeable, a situation you feel so utterly stuck in — that situation can change. And what’s true, at least for me, is that the first part of changing the situation was changing my mindset, my lenses. I had to allow myself to shift how I was seeing myself, and that relationship. Just very gently, I began to ask myself, What if I’m not wrong or bad or crazy or broken here? And what if he isn’t either? What if we’re just two very different people with very different needs and it’s ok to stop trying — after 8 years, to stop trying — to force ourselves to be something that didn’t fit?

(and then I feel myself wanting to say, hey, out here, if you’re having to tuck important and tender parts of yourself away in order to fit into a relationship, maybe that relationship isn’t the right one for you.)

I look back in those old journals, those old writes in the mornings from San Rafael or Tiburon, and I want to tell that woman, You’re ok. He’s ok. You’re just not ok together. Don’t worry about waking up tomorrow and picking up the threads of the same old fight you’ve been having since you first got together. Just set down those threads, pack your bag, and leave. I urge my hands in her direction, gesturing. Just go. But she won’t go. She’ll stay for another three years, another two. She’ll take small steps as she builds the muscles she needs to be able to leave. She — I — had to build the muscles I needed to be able to trust myself, to trust my own perceptions, my own vision, my own view of the world.

So much old stuff got triggered in that relationship. Old stuff about trusting myself, really — isn’t that at the core of it. Letting my needs be even a fraction as important as the other person’s? At some point you have to set down the old ghosts, step out of the maelstrom of voices yelling selfish, mean, thoughtless — bend your head down, duck underneath, and step out to the other side. It’s like taking off a pair of sunglasses and noticing that the world looks really different than you’d come to be used to. It’s allowing yourself to step outside of somebody else’s narrative and notice, sometimes for the first time, that you don’t fit anymore, that the story they’re telling you about you doesn’t match who you know you are. And that small voice inside you, your instinct, your intuition — becomes something you can hear again, you can attend to, you give some weight to.

The shift for me was allowing myself to imagine a reality outside of my ex’s worldview, he worldview he wanted me to live within. There were poems that helped me look at the world, and myself, anew. And writing practice helped me imagine new ways of being.

(Some animal is rushing around in the woods. At first I thought it was the wind, but the chimes are silent.)

You should never have to make yourself small in order to keep your partner happy (or your boss, or your parents, or…) And though I went into the relationship knowing that was true, intellectually, I still had to learn it in my body.

I still had to learn to trust it, trust myself.

I still had to learn to face a very old fear, one I got from my home as a young person — that If I stand up for myself, I’m going to get in trouble, and then I’m going to get hurt. And I did get in trouble in that relationship, let’s be honest. But I wasn’t a teenager anymore. I could walk away. I could say no to his demand that I see the world in such a way that minimized me, or that left me feeling crazy and literally unable to communicate effectively much of the time. I could step out, take a deep breath, and take off the glasses he said I looked so good in, in order to see the world in a different way.

We get indoctrinated, as children in abusive homes — we get trained into particular ways of seeing and understanding ourselves. So it takes a lot of work, in our adult relationships, to not listen to the old voices, especially when/if our partners say things that echo what our abusers used to say, in some form or another. They may not be intending to do so, they may not be abusive at all, but still those old messages, and those old survival strategies, are triggered within us. and so we just continue the long work of trying to dislodge that old learning, that old way of thinking that said I have to let you define reality for me because if I don’t I’ll get hurt

It took the time it took for me to move through that learning in my second marriage. I’m working to be easier with that woman I was then. The other thing that happens, over time, is that I can read these old notebook entries and not beat myself up, I can feel more compassion for the self I was then, the things I was struggling with, the complaints I kept echoing.

(And I believe, too, there are some relationships we can’t settle into until we have done deep work to heal some of these old wounds. These are mature adult relationships, people we wouldn’t be able to stand up next to until we have done the work to know and trust and like who we are–otherwise how can we love someone else who knows and trusts and likes us? They’re not going to stick around if we just spend all the time telling them how stupid they are for loving us, for liking us, for finding us smart or funny or clever or creative or kind … )

So today I’m grateful — for time, for poems, for writing, for that small quiet voice within that never stops whispering You deserve joy in this lifetime, that small voice that keeps whispering, even through days, months, years, when I can’t hear it singing inside me.

And I am grateful for you, today, too, for all the ways you make room for those around you to grow and change, and the ways you are easy with yourself in your own growing, too. And for your words, of course — I’m always grateful for your words.

it all stays (es bleibt alles)

Poster on a stick, pink background behind a line drawing of a house; inside the house are the words Good morning, good morning. Upstairs, the bread dough is resting on the breadboard. I wake up to a room smelling of wild yeast, dough rising. I think a house should always smell like freshly baked bread, or about-to-be-baked-bread, don’t you?

Sometimes you make a decision and you feel something land in you, a place of possibility opens, a thing of yes hollows out all the no you’ve swallowed, and makes itself at home. You become a place where yes can live. Where future can live. Where tomorrow can live. Where hope can live. Some days you are all outshine and coffee grounds, you are the flicker of the flame and you are the flame, you are the waft of steam rising from the green tea and the hum of the wing of the hummingbird hovering over the blossom’s throat, you are the feet finding a new path, you are the fingers welcoming an old stone. You are the gist of a sentence, you are the stamen’s statement, you are the ripening peach, you are the lengthening glisten on a growing beach, you are the bean. Some days you are more than yesterday’s ache, yesterdays no, yesterday’s grief and loss, you are more than garbage, you are more than what was thrown out or ignored, you are more than the book left on the shelf for years, unread, unheralded, unblessed. Some days you are the cool chill on the neck of a sleeping deer, nestled in a place safe beneath a copse of trees, some days you are the copse of trees, you are the safety, some days you, even you, are the safe place. Your body is the safe place, your hands are the safe place, your mouth is the safe place, and your heart, as you know your heart, has always been the safe place.

Some days you are echo and dance, you are willpower and dive, you are forget and forgive, you are revenge, you are remember, you are never forget, you are anger and you are yes and you are power. You are the child curled up on the couch and the youth hiding in the closet and the young man walking down the street with a strut he thinks he doesn’t deserve but doesn’t know how to live without. You are the without. You are the strut. You are the do until die, you are the fake it until you make it, you know how to make it because you have made it here. Some days you are more than the account balance, you are more than the hours of life traded for money, you are more than the receipt, more than the transcript, more than the record, the data, the bits of information floating around in the world about you, you are their aggregation, and then you are more. You are the flicker of the squirrel tail, you are the faint hoot of the owl in the woods, you are the place of promise, you are the finger of regret and then you are the finger that scrapes through cake frosting and brings sweet to your mouth.

Some days you are learn and some days you are unlearn, you are forget, you are unwanting. You are the eyes looking across the water at distant islands, you are the eyes examining the feet of a newborn child, you are the hands that can safely hold a newborn child. Some days you are more than the loss, even though you might also still be the loss. You are the cup that holds the tea, you are the nurturance, you are the truth-telling, you are the sharpened pencil, you are the dance of pollen.

Sometimes you are more than electronic motes across a virtual dust screen, you are not the butterfly caught on the car grille, you are not the emptied rubbish can, you are not the messily erased chalkboard. Some days you are yawn and whisper and you rise from your bed like you deserve to be living. Some days the words come to you in the middle of the night and you meet them, on the page or in dreams. Some days you are the art that lives you. Some days you are the twist of the plot. Some days you are what hopes for escape and you are escape. Some days you are more than what begs in you to die, what begs in you to stop and please can’t we just stop and rest, some days you stop and rest. Some days you welcome the flow of your life, the rises and falls, the swells and thins, the ebbs and purls, the rhythms of you, the rhythms you are, the blood that follows the moon, the shallow dance, the circles, the spirals, the contours, the glisten, the blossom. You are the seed in the ground and the fingers that cover it with dirt with soil and the water that drenches and feeds.

Some days you cannot stop to think about the right word, you are the right word at the right time. Some days you know that you have always been the right word at the right time, even if someone couldn’t hear it, even if you were ignored or silenced, even if you couldn’t say the word out loud, you have always been the right word at the right time. Some days you are more than what enough holds in your belly. Some days you want what lives inside enough, the rest there, the nest, the promise, the comfort, the cradle in lap, the safe place, the knowing that you don’t have to hustle at the center of you, that you have earned the right to love yourself, that you have always been the love you deserve. That you are so far beyond ok that you can’t even see ok in your rear view mirror anymore, that you are the wind through your hair on the highway, convertible top down, sun shining on everything like a wish, you are the breeze through fingers stuck out of car windows and the ears of dogs flapping in joy. You are that joy. You are the small wishes, the littles delights that are the best ones, the bag of candy, the silly laughter, the eyes watching a dog sleep in a safe bed.

Some days you can trust that you are where you need to be, even if you know that you can’t stay there, even if there’s something in you that has to change or get out. And some days there is nothing in you that wants to escape your life anymore. Some days you have found a place where love is a blossom you can believe in, where kindness lives like breath, where your voice is a song written on the walls, written on the inside of every wrist and thigh, where your body is a delight of strength and comfort, where yours can be the body that someone wants to live in, some days that someone – can you believe it? – is you.

I woke up early, before the alarm, to lines of poemish things flowing in my head and I repeated the lines to myself like I do, thinking that I will remember even though I think I’ve never once remembered lines that came to me in the middle of the night that I don’t write down. but I woke up remembering anyway, not the lines themselves but the fact of them, the possibility of meeting the page this morning with imagination and flow, with something hopeful — San Francisco may not care but still I meet her at the corner and buy a batch of fresh Thai chilis at the farmer’s market, and the man with the light eyes didn’t remember my name, which made me happy for reasons I can’t quite explain. The man with the long hair and the question mark body was not around on Mission Street yesterday.

Something is growing inside me, something that wants answering.

I was thinking yesterday about how I used to memorize poems in German, back when I was in high school — excerpts from Goethe’s Faust — for competitions. (These were my earliest poetry recitals.) Sometimes I try to think of a way to say something, to communicate a thought, and the phrase pops up in German — unbidden, as the saying goes, like all that learning is still in me somewhere, the language, the vocabulary, the words, like they belong here, this language I loved all through junior high and high school, into college. I thought for sure I’d visit Germany, spend time there, maybe study. But then life took a different turn.

Maybe the trajectory we thought we’d take got bent and twisted into other directions. We grieve where we thought we’d get to, and by when; we grieve all that we thought we were supposed to be and do — but if I step back and look at what life has unfurled around me, there are days that I can take pleasure in what was and is. The anchor of me is still floating somewhere, not tethered, still free. There is still time to do so much of what the younger me wanted.

Some days there’s peace to be had in releasing the old dreams, even if we grieve as we let them fall from our hands — and some days we can pick them back up again, dust them off, look at them from a different angle. Yes, this fragment of life can still be mine. It’s not too late and you are not too old, Rilke said (in German it’s “Noch bist du nicht kalt, und es ist nicht zu spät”). It’s true — I want a lot (du seihst, ich will viel) — perhaps I want everything.

Some days we get to want everything, with the ache that longing brings, and the joy.

Du siehst, ich will viel
Rainer Maria Rilke

Du siehst, ich will viel.
Vielleicht will ich Alles:
das Dunkel jedes unendlichen Falles
und jedes Steigens lichtzitterndes Spiel.

Es leben so viele und wollen nichts,
und sind durch ihres leichten Gerichts
glatte Gefühle gefürstet.

Aber du freust dich jedes Gesichts,
das dient und dürstet.

Du freust dich Aller, die dich gebrauchen
wie ein Gerät.

Noch bist du nicht kalt, und es ist nicht zu spät,
in deine werdenden Tiefen zu tauchen,
wo sich das Leben ruhig verrät.

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything:
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.

So many live on and want nothing,
and are raised to the rank of prince
by the slippery ease of their light judgments.

But what you love to see are faces
that do work and feel thirst.

You love most of all those who need you
as they need a crowbar or a hoe.

You have not grown old, and it is not too late
to dive into your increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secret.

from The Book of the Hours
(translated by Robert Bly)

Thanks for all you’ve carried forward into today, all the wanting, all the hope, all the dreams. Thanks for allowing yourself to set some of it down. And thanks for picking some of it back up, giving yourself bits and swells of something you always wanted. Thanks for your words today. I mean it.

sometimes it takes the heart of a dragon

graffiti of a red heart with veins emerging; inside are the words Good morning, good morning. How’s this day where you are?

I manage to get up when the alarm first goes off before 5. I hit snooze, set the phone back down on the table, put my head back down on the pillow, but I was awake. These words pushing through me every waking: The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you — when did I stop listening?

Outside it’s still dark, the birds are still asleep.

Do I remember how to type this early, type to make my fingers work at just 5am? I’m working myself back toward this early morning schedule, this no one moving anywhere this schedule, this I am alone, free to let whatever words flow that want to, schedule.

The sound of the clock thick in my ears, the one I bought for my little office in the Flood building, the one that kept the pace for me there. That was 10 years ago. In ten years, I rose and fell and disappeared. That’s what it feels like.

I feel outside the thing that time makes of me.

I’ve been reading books in translation — Mexican, French, Brazilian, German — books written in in the 30s, 70s, 80s. What am I looking for except some distance from my own situation, the possibility that other kinds of writing can be acceptable, the possibility that my writing will be wanted somewhere. I’ve had a lot of rejection recently. Since before starting school, I wanted to crack the literary journal market, to try and figure it out. So I send the work out, into the ether, I send it via submittible or email, I study the submission guidelines, write up my brief cover letters, use the same mode and method that served me so well when I was mainly submitting to anthologies, but no one is biting. Rejection after rejection, all form letters, all impersonal, all no.

It’s part of the game, the business. It’s part of what you have to get good at as a so-called professional writer, Jen, is being rejected. I tell myself this over and over, the good parent in my head, the business woman or whatever, the thing that has to sing the song of making sense, but I still get stung, feel less-than, thought that the book being accepted by a publisher meant that something had changed. And of course it does mean that. But I’m still playing by he same rules as everybody else — the rules of subjectivity and vice.

I fill the teacup, I move the candle to obscure the growing light, to keep the room darker longer, I don’t want the morning to rise yet. I just now found the dark I’ve been looking for.

Outside the garden is blossoming, and I am learning its fertility and dead zones, its quiet places, the stuff it hides and how it dazzles. The birds find their way to our feeders and we are getting to know each other. Sophie plays chicken with the wild turkeys, with the jays and crows that want to steal her kibble, with the California towhees that hop around like enormous mice.

I read Helene Cixous’s Coming to Writing, I read Clarice Lispector, I read books originally conceived of in languages I cannot speak. The idea that different possibility erupts that way, the idea that the language creates room for the thought, that there are ways of expressing and thinking and conceiving of the world that I cannot even imagine because I am in only this one language, this solid English brain, and of course even in translation I miss so much.

The depression lifts, moves around, resettles itself within me differently, but while it’s standing up to shake itself off, I can dance a little, I can breathe, I can see things better. I have a little more energy, strength, and manage to send off another submission. Tell myself it will probably be rejected — sour grapes do their work for us sometimes, protecting us from hurt we expect is on the way. The Sun says no; brand-new, just-launching journals say no; Modern Love says no. Fiction, poems, essays get rejected. I send them out again. Sometimes right away, but rarely. Usually I have to tuck in and lick my wounds for awhile. Soak in the self-pity, in the sense that everyone else can get published, just not me, I am doing something wrong. I don’t have the right voice, the right message, the right whatever all the editors are looking for. I know it’s subjective, but seriously: if all the readers who look at a thing say no, is the universe trying to give you a larger objective message?

So then you tell yourself the stories about the impossibly successful books that had to be submitted 10, 20, 80 times. Take a deep breath, just keep going, send it out again.

I take the essays to workshop and am told, Send it out. This is done. I think, it’s been rejected so much, it must need more work. But the feedback is something else. Puffed up, I send it out to a new journal, the one that liked lyric work, experimental stuff, wants to see something new and exciting.  Then the pin in the balloon: No, thanks, we got so many exciting and interesting submissions, can’t give personal responses to them all, please don’t take this as a reflection on your work, good luck to you, la la la. I send the work out to anthologies, contests, judged by women writers I admire, whose work has inspired me, thinking that they will be able to see the thing in my work that those other (straight, white, male) editors have missed. That’s the ticket. More rejection. No, no, no.

I suppose the thing that’s in me right now is that rejection is fucking hard and disappointing and hurts. Every time it’s something personal, it’s something in me, that’s been denied or rejected, it’s something of me being turned back, that’s not worthy of appreciation.

Yes, I know that’s not true. Yes, I remember the rules: We are not our writing, the writing is a separate thing, we are worthy and loveable and good even when an editor says no to our work.

And even as my adult brain tells my writing brain all these truths, still I nurse the ache, and it takes time for the ache to abate enough that I’m ready to send this piece of writing out again.

Some people are able to do it differently. Some people are able to separate themselves from the work, from the writing, their worth from whether or not their words are accepted by anyone else. They have their systems, their lists of venues and publications, their stacks of addressed envelopes (or did, once upon a time, now it’s just an excel spreadsheet with editor’s names and email addresses), and when a piece is returned rejected, they turn right around, open the spreadsheet, make a note of the rejection, highlight the next line on the list, open a new email message and cop in and update the cove r letter, and send it out again. don’t’ let it lie on the desk, literally or metaphorically, gathering dust. Send it send it send it. let it find its way into the right hands.

When you are raised or spend any significant part of your life being groomed and trained to believe that others’ opinions of you are more important than your own, are the most important thing, this rejection part of the writing job is maybe a little more difficult.

It takes the heart of a dragon to do it–to be a writer. Fortunately, we trauma survivors are the epitome of dragon-hearted, we fire-breathing, scale-adorned and jewel-bedecked beings, and when I remember that, I snort a laugh that incinerates the most recent rejection note, then unfurl my wings and take off again. Sit down at the notebook, the keyboard again, write some more, send it off, one more try.

Thank you for those dragon’s wings you wear, for the words you sing as you soar above or whisper as you nestle in your cave. For all the words within you, I am grateful. 

“render, render”

Good morning good morning. It’s grey here today, the clouds soaking across the hills, coating everything in an impenetrable foggy frost that I am deeply grateful for. How has the day begun for you? Where is your sun just now?

Sophie has gone after a squirrel this morning, who is now stuck up on top of the neighbor’s garage and is letting forth a stream of chitters that I can only assume is squirrel for lots and lots of expletives. Sophie stands guard, ball in her mouth (thus rendering her fully incapable of catching anything else between her teeth, but the squirrel doesn’t know that) — she and the squirrel have this sort of antagonistic relationship when he gets close to where she can catch him, but I’ve seen her watching him in the garden for long stretches, those times he risks coming down from the walnut tree to grab one of the fallen green walnuts or takes to examining the garden to see if there’s anything there he might like, and Sophie will stand up at the top of the garden, on the patio, watching and watching, still and quiet, not wanting to disturb him, waiting for him to get close? Or maybe she just wants to see what he’ll do? Maybe she wants to be friends?

He’s made it now, from the garage roof, across the top of the backyard fence and back to the trees where he lives — Sophie chases him along the fence, every time he comes down far enough that she’s aware of him, and he chitters his curses the whole time, though now I think maybe it’s more like, go ahead and try it, you land-bound thing! Perhaps something better, more vitriolic.

I’m sitting on the back deck, a good place for quiet when the whole house is up (save for the chasing, barking dog and the teasing, chattering squirrel). The squirrel makes it across our back yard, from tree to tree, and I can’t hear his old-man chattering anymore. Sophie goes to the side fence, next to the other neighbor’s yard, where the squirrel sometimes hides down at ground-level,and she stands up to peek over the fence, using her front paws to grab at the fence and pull herself up and forward to get a better look. The squirrel suddenly appears on the top of the neighbor’s house.

It’s a serious drama here in the backyard this morning.

This morning I woke up thinking about the word render, which means things like: provide or give (as in a service); cause to be; represent or show artistically; melt down (fat); and comes from old French meaning “give back” or “yield.”

This brought to mind a poem that I hand out in the workshops sometimes:

Render, Render
-Thomas Lux

Boil it down: feet, skin, gristle,
bones, vertebrae, heart muscle, boil
it down, skim, and boil
again, dreams, history, add them and boil
again, boil and skim
in closed cauldrons, boil your horse, his hooves,
the runned-over dog you loved, the girl
by the pencil sharpener
who looked at you, looked away,
boil that for hours, render it
down, take more from the top as more settles to the bottom,
the heavier, the denser, throw in ache
and sperm, and a bead
of sweat that slid from your armpit to your waist
as you sat stiff-backed before a test, turn up
the fire, boil and skim, boil
some more, add a fever
and the virus that blinded an eye, now’s the time
to add guilt and fear, throw
logs on the fire, coal, gasoline, throw
two goldfish in the pot (their swim bladders
used for “clearing”), boil and boil, render
it down and distill,
that for which there is no
other use at all, boil it down, down,
then stir it with rosewater, that
which is now one dense, fatty, scented red essence
which you smear on your lips
and go forth
to plant as many kisses upon the world
as the world can bear!

I lay in bed long after the alarm went off, hitting snooze, turning back over to cuddle into the blankets, writing this post in my head: render is what we do with the material we live through when we decide to offer it down oto the page. When we write out our joys and struggles, we render the experience from something we lived through, from a vast and uncoordinated series of memories and neuronal interweavings, into story.

Rendering a story takes work. We decide what details to include, what to leave out. We create a structure: a beginning, middle, and end — even when telling just one piece of our day, we tend to create an arc. We build tension, we use sensory detail, we develop characters, we use foreshadowing and backstory — we aren’t intending to do any of this: humans are storytelling creatures. We learn how to do story early, just by listening to the other people around us. We play make believe, we dream, we gossip, we remember aloud to friends, we write poems and fictions and journal entries — we render the constant influx of sensory experience and data down to the stuff of deep human communication: story. And there are so many ways to tell the same experience — every time, the story will be a little different — we’ll remember some detail or forget another, we’ll add a twist, we’ll include something we weren’t ready to say the first time. Every rendering has a different flavor. And why do we do this? To make sense of our lives. To feel witnessed. To be part of the tribe. To set some order to the overwhelm, to have some sense of control over the experience: this is my material, and I’ll do what I want with it, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the life-and-death squirrel-dog drama, the house finches are quietly chewing seeds off of the hawthorn tree, tenaciously avoiding the thorns while they breakfast. I’m noticing my allegiance with them these days — is there really any reason to be running around crazy, barking at everything that feels like a threat? Don’t we have some songs to sing? There’s a juvenile finch in with the adults, just learning to fly, and though she’s joined the grown folks for the meal, she still needs help serving herself, and flaps her wings at one of the adults, chirping, until they feed her. Meanwhile, Sophie stands vigilant, just in case the intruder should return. There have been years I lived the way she is standing right now: muscles tense, every nerve at attention, unable to focus for long on anything but the chance that someone or something might cross the boundary into her space and already ready to fight it off. The thing about Sophie is that she’s able to walk away after a little while. She discharges her tension (shaking her body and stretching long and hard), ridding her muscles of the adrenaline and anxiety — then she moves on to the next thing. It’s usually not so easy for people — we hold tension and hyperalertness in our bodies long, long after the trauma is past.

One of the ways I discharge the old trauma, rendering it into something of use, is through writing. What about you? What happens when you story your knowings, your experiences? What happens when you don’t?

“know it while you have it”

256px-Charles_Bukowski_916Good morning good morning. It’s hot here, and the sun is already high in the sky, coating everything in yikes. How’s the body of the earth where you are?

Here’s your tired writer, two mornings in a row getting a late start because I had a late night because… well, two nights ago I was out late at the Erotic Reading Circle, listening to powerful writers share their gorgeously hot work. Last night I was up late reading Martha Beck’s Leaving The Saints. If you find the through-line that ties those things together, let me know.

I’ve got two workshops this weekend I need to prepare for (Dirty Words on Saturday (join us if you’d like!), and Dive Deep on Sunday); also, I’m performing tomorrow night at a long-running reading series called Perverts Put Out, and I’ve got to write something for that show, so I don’t have much of a blog for you today. (I’m hanging out at the Peet’s near my place, the one in the shadow of the new and fancy Catholic Church they built at the edge of Lake Merritt — maybe that will provide some inspiration. Wish me luck.)

But I’ve got this poem I want to share with you. Be easy with yourselves today, ok? And I will try to do the same.

the laughing heart

– Charles Bukowski

your life is your life.
don’t let it be clubbed into dank
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you
know them, take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death
in life,
and the more often you
learn to do it,
the more light there will
your life is your life.
know it while you have
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight

reconnoitering with the body’s old injuries

There were lots of friends in my dreams last night, but I don’t remember anything else. I have things to think about: my cup of water with lemon, a candle, and the typewriter that I’ve covered my eyes from being able to see — my chiropractor gave me a hard time about my ergonomic setup, and now here I am typing away at a kitchen table. So I lower the monitor, type with just my hands illuminated, and look straight ahead, hoping that I’m striking the right keys. Trust that old learning, the typing lessons you got when you were 12 years old, or something close — and trust that you won’t lift the screen in twenty minutes and find only gibberish.

Today my body is better. What a thing to be able to say. There are places that are sore still, inflamed, along my spine, in my knee, in my ribs, after years of being out of alignment and now adjusted, corrected. But my body is better. Yesterday I went to see a structural bodyworker, who talked with me a little bit about what is going on for me — the spasm I had two years ago, old injuries that might be manifesting now, the sort of trauma I might hold in my body — before starting to work on my body.

I explained that most of my pain was on the right side of my body. He’s been a long time in this work — almost 30 years — and had some ideas about what might be going on even before we got on his adjusting table. He worked with his hands, feeling along my spine for places that are out of alignment and then making the adjustments by hand, too, using a table that drops out from underneath me when he pushes down for the adjustments. Mostly, it didn’t feel like anything was happening. I heard the loud ring of the table, felt him pressing on my back, but most of the adjustments were slight and small, I think — gentle corrections that will help energy and blood flow more smoothly through the contours inside me.

He talked to me all the way through the process, explaining when and where he felt something stuck, and when he felt things start to move and loosen again. He found major obstructions in my neck and in the ribs closest to my shoulder, in my lumbar spine, and then had some adjustment to do on my knee (which he said I’d hyperexended). My lumbar spine is the place that’s most inflamed now, after a long time  of being out of whack. This morning I am not sure what I feel. I kept waiting for some major release of emotional energy, and though I did tear up once or twice, I also laughed a lot, in surprise and curiosity — what’s going on here (especially when he cracked my neck manually, the way you see chiropractors doing on tv). The changes are mostly subtle — I still have some residual pain in the places that have been hurting, but I also think things are better there.

And what’s most astonishing is that the place in my butt under the glute muscle where I thought for sure that something was spasmed and held tight (this is the trouble with self-diagnosing when you don’t know anything about the problem), that tension is gone — it wast the torquing of my lumbar spine causing all of that trouble, that tight muscle. None of the stretches that I was doing would have ever helped “pop” or ease or relax that muscle out of spasm, because that wasn’t the problem.

Today I mostly feel peaceful, quiet inside, and grateful.

He was able to help me know what bones are connected where, and to start to explain what happens when they’re out of alignment. He was not rushed with me, and was willing to answer questions throughout. He asked me about old injuries and I described: the weekend before the spasm back in November 2012 (leaving day job, hard dancing in high heels, helping my sweetheart on her moving day); the time I fell hard right onto my back when I was up in the Tiburon hills with Sophie and she was running around with another dog, playing chase and keep away, and she ran straight for me, hit me at full speed, knocking my legs out from under me and dropping me to the ground; and my stepfather’s assaults. He found evidence of all of these (and more, likely) while he worked on my body. Later, at the end of the session, I mentioned something about my dad. He clarified — Your biological dad? I said, Yeah — my stepfather is in jail. This was the second time in a week I’d made that particular clarification in that way for somebody. He was delighted to hear this news, after feeling in my body and bones some of the aftermath of my stepfather’s violence. That’s a great end to that story! He cheered. And I thought so, too.

He was kind and direct, confident in a way that could have come off as cocky but didn’t — or at least didn’t bother me. I think I know what I’m going to find when I get there, he’d say after listening to me explain what I was feeling. Ok, I thought. I hope that’s true. And I hope you know how to fix it. And then he did. I feel like I have found another someone who may be able to help me understand my body. What a gift.

At one point I stood, transitioning from the adjustment table to the massage table. How does that feel, he wanted to know. But I didn’t really have words for it yet. Better–maybe. Can you relax your shoulders, he asked? But I thought I was relaxing my shoulders. No, he said, not yet. And then after he did some work on my ribs, he said, There — now you’ll be able to relax them. Not, now you’re relaxed, but: now you’ll be able to relax there — now the muscles have he opportunity to remember what relax looks like, after they shift out of this reactive posture, tightening up and around in response to a torqued spine and bone structure.

Now I’m trying to sit upright in my chair, look straight ahead (instead of down at the keyboard), keep my body in alignment as much as possible. I feel fortunate today, and grateful that I stumbled on a therapist I like, who then has been able to give me some ideas about steps to take with other practitioners to help me with my body. And I feel quiet and kind of heavy, like something deep is going on in me — and it probably is. My body is recovering from a chronic issue — it makes sense that I wouldn’t have an acute emotional response. The response will come slowly, I think. Everything in me feels a little tender, a little looser. I walk around gently, looking with my inside eyes: does this still hurt? What do I need to do differently here? My bodyworker wants me to wait for a few days before I start really exercising again, to let the swelling in my lower back heal, let that part of my spine get better before I go compressing it again like what happens when you jog.

I had made a lot of assumptions about what was going on in my body, based on how I felt — it must be spasms, muscle knots, tightnesses — but these were all reactions to something more structural, deeper.

Are there metaphors in that for writing? Sometimes the trouble isn’t in the symptoms — it’s in the structure; change your framework, the bones of your book and your story, and suddenly everything flows a little better, things get a little looser, more agile, more interesting, more limber.

Also: sometimes we can’t fix the problem ourselves — in our books or in our bodies — sometimes we have to get some damn help from someone who knows more than we do. And that doesn’t mean we’ve failed. It means we’re smart; we know what we know and what we don’t know, and know we can use guidance and suggestions around what we don’t yet know.

Anyway, today I am grateful for this skin and bones, these fingers on the keyboard, and your eyes out there — I am grateful for the generous response I got to my posts about what was going on with my body and how scared I was of dealing with it. Kindness goes a long way. Thank you for that. Big love right back at you today.


Jen’s ten rules for writers (for today)

Sometimes things conspire to keep the body from pulling itself out of bed at 4:50am. Sometimes the dog has been awake at irregular intervals all night, snapping off sharp, surprising barks at the neighbors who had the audacity to have a gathering on their summer-vacation Monday night and into Tuesday morning. Sometimes she’s up at 1:48am, shaking and scratching and agitating so that her collar rings like poorly-tuned chimes, needing to go outside. Sometimes the body stands at the back door, falling back asleep while upright, waiting for the dog to finish exploring the night yard and ask to be let back in. Sometimes the work went late into the night and rest didn’t come early enough. Sometimes the leg spasms, dancing all by itself, and the rest of the body doesn’t want to stretch it — that road leads directly to charlie horse.

So sleep, such as it is, blows right through the 4:50 alarm, through the many snoozes, and continues on until almost 7. Sometimes the sweetheart’s arms are just too sweet to slip away from, and so it’s a whole lot better to cuddle back in under the covers after every snooze. And those precious early morning writing hours are spent in dreams. But the dreams will make their way into some character’s head, someday. That’s the hope.

~~ ~~ ~~

Today is a self-care day: body work, therapy, CoDA — not in that order. There’s much work to do — we have a beautiful group gathered for our summer online write whole session, and folks have already begun to share strong and gorgeous work there; our fundraising campaign for Sex Still Spoken Here (the Erotic Reading Circle anthology) is in the homestretch and needs a lot of attention in order to make our $5000 goal; Dive Deep‘s SummerFall 2014 Cohort is underway and manuscripts are arriving for response; Write Whole‘s in-person session begins next week, and I’ve got to prepare our syllabus and get the word out to any last-minute registrants — I’ve also got a syllabus to prepare for a master class for the National Poetry Slam at the beginning of next month and start getting the word out to local colleges about our 2014-2015 workshop offerings… so today’s practice will be to relax during the self-care time, and trust that the work will get done as it needs to get done. Whew.

~~ ~~ ~~

Last Thursday, In the first meeting of our Dive Deep SummerFall cohort, I asked us to write (in 10 minutes) our 10 rules for writers (I got the idea from Advice to Writers, which shares various writers’ lists of 10 rules now and again…). We got some great lists, and some interesting overlap among many of our lists. What would get included on your list of 10 “rules” for writers? What would you leave off your list of “rules”?

Here’s what my list looked like:

1) Start now.

2) Open a notebook. Get a fast-moving pen. Sit down at a corner table in a bustling cafe, next to a window, wearing headphones connected to a tape player blaring music you’ve listened to often enough that the sound simply permeates your brain, creating a barrier between the loud voices around you, the even louder and more hostile voices within you, and the words you can barely even allow yourself to know you want to write. Put the pen to the page. Write one word, then another, as fast as you can, faster than the eyes of your inner editors and censors can read. Keep going for 20 minutes, take a breath, then keep going for another 20 years.

3) Understand that anyone’s rules for writing are useless to you.

4) Move your body in ways that feel excellent to you and make you sweat at least as often as, and for as long as, you write.

5) Be around animals — they being you into the present moment better than anything else.

6) Read books you love. Read books you don’t love. Read in and out of the genre you want to write.

7) Write what you love — not what you think you ought to write. Forgive yourself for not always loving what you “ought” to write.

8) Remember that writing needs room to breathe — loafing, wandering, and lazing aimlessly are often deeply creative acts.

9) Take paid work that has nothing to do with writing, leaves you energy to write, and provides material for your writing.

10). Be easy with you. And keep going.

morning fragments

Good morning good morning. I like these dark hours, reaching for the keyboard when my eyes are still half-closed and I am yawning, my body and mind not quite yet awake. Everything is drowsy yet, still percolating. What do I want to say? I’m drinking some nettle tea to help with the allergies that have flared since I got back to CA. It’s darker now than it was at this time of day just a month ago — the light has already changed, the sun shifting backwards in her cycle (of course that’s only how it looks to those of us stuck here on earth, where we believe we are the center of everything), and coming up later and later in the morning.

My right knee is aching this morning, something popped while we were running yesterday afternoon, and now it hurts. the muscles in my right calf are fluttering, like just after a spasm, chattering, and my right shoulder is tense, too. Time to finally find a doctor. The pop happened just halfway, or not even quite, through my run around the lake yesterday, and I had to walk the rest of the way. I felt frustrated and disappointed with myself, my body: really, body? We finally found our way back into a desire to exercise, to move and sweat and feel and inhabit this physical container, and now we’re going to start falling apart? Can’t we have just a few years of joy and adoration in the movement, touching back into how we felt when we were small, in the time of Before? Is it really already too late?

~~ ~~ ~~

I have been thinking about the fact that it’s been 21 years since the last time my stepfather had his hands on me, when I was 21 years old. I have lived a lifetime, as long again as I’d been alive up to that point, and still I am blaming him for how my life has turned out, for the fact that I didn’t graduate on time and didn’t have any confidence in myself and took a left turn away from the road of success because I was afraid of money, of having something I cared about that could be taken away from me, could be used against me. And here I am still battling with that demon, still afraid to live fully, still he has won all of these years later.

~~ ~~ ~~

“Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same sort of tack I find necessary when writing a novel. I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm. This is the important thing for long-term projects. Once you set the pace, the rest will follow. The problem is getting the flywheel to spin at a set speed-and to get to that point takes as much concentration and effort as you can manage.”
― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

These are the morning thoughts. Take a deep breath. Focus. Let the words come. Turn to the novel and get some work done there before the sun has quite yet opened her eyes. Everything wants to get in the way of this one simple goal. I am finding this morning momentum again.

back to the place I could have once said I was from

Good morning good morning — the birds are not awake yet. Are you? It’s 5am and I am back in the saddle. We are returned from vacation, the coffee is brewing, the dog is asleep in her chair, the garden is still quiet. Everything is at my back. Backside. Support. Lumbar. Supine. Behind. There. Before. Past.

I went back to the place I could have once said I was from, the place that was once home to me and still lives in my body. We spent two weeks away from home, away from Sophie, away from work. I took all kinds of work with me, of course, with the idea that now I would be able to Get Things Done, but once we got to the coast of Maine, I didn’t want to do any of it. Instead, I sat and read books for fourteen says. Not quite so consistently — we had a stretch of just-two-of-us together vacation and then 5 days of here’s-all-the-family vacation with my sweetheart’s son there, too.

I am thinking this morning of the pleasure — and the struggle, for me — of a long vacation, taking two full weeks of time “off.” Time to fall apart, get panicked, feel guilty and unworthy, and then actually drop all the way away from work. I didn’t even get much writing done during this vacation — I did morning pages the first week, but the second week, when the boys were awake early and draped across their computers in the living room, I didn’t worry about trying to hunt down private space for my writing time Instead, I walked with my sweetheart. We read and read and read. We let the sun bake us to relaxation. We slept. We learned the beach’s varying contours. We made routines and then broke them. We didn’t watch tv, and I stayed off the computer. We biked around the beachside communities and I swam in the ocean, diving through wave after wave until I felt the tides moving in me even after I came back to shore. Slowly but surely, the vacation opened up in me, and I was able to unwind there on this beautiful beach.

I don’t remember the last time I had this many days away in a row — time to actually let the work stress fall away. It didn’t happen at all during the first week we were away. I still work up every day afraid about what I had forgotten to get done, panicked about somebody needing to hear from me, harassed about the thought of the email that would be waiting for me when I got back from this time away. I was sure that everything would be ruined — my business would fall apart — if I didn’t get back to email right away and respond to everyone now. Would they understand I was on vacation, and wait patiently for an answer from me? Who did I think I was to believe I got to truly go on vacation? For goodness’ sake, the editors of the ERC anthology, Sex Still Spoken Here, (of which I am one!)  had launched a fundraising campaign and I wasn’t even participating! But I knew that once I opened my email, it would be all over — I’d see what needed doing, and feel like I had to do all of it now. So, for the most part, I kept my email turned off. I stayed of of facebook. On two occasions, I gave in to the anxiety and let myself send messages that were ricocheting around in my head, needing outlet, not letting me be present at the beach or with the people we were visiting: it’s ok not to be perfect on vacation, too. Sometimes work gets in.

I wrestled with the idea of taking time like this away from my life — I was certain that I did not deserve it. Who am I to take a vacation? To really let myself be in my body, to walk on a beach almost every single day? This was my struggle in the first week — all those defenses, those muscles, those parts of myself that work so hard to stay vigilant, keep me focused, keep me on task — they didn’t want to let me go: If you stop worrying about this, how can we trust that you will pick it up again after your break? And those voices are right to worry about that — because I haven’t picked up some of those worries yet.

In the middle of these two weeks, I headed up for a 36-hour solo trip to Monhegan Island — and that’s where I felt my vacation fully begin. On the island, there was no cell service, no data reception (at least for me, given my at&t coverage, which can generally assure me that I will have little coverage outside of major cities, and poor service in them), which meant that I couldn’t even text back to my sweetheart to let her know where I was or what I was doing at that minute. For those hours, that overnight on an island 10 miles off the coat of Maine, I wasn’t doing anything for anybody else. I was fully on my own. I wandered around the island, takings short hikes punctuated with opportunities to sit on shale that tucked itself into the broad ocean waves and write in my notebook, as had been one of my favorite pastimes when I lived in Maine back 10 years ago. I made up some new stories. I walked and examined all the patches of clover, looking for that one with 4 leaves. I immersed myself in the Maine seaside scent: salt, brine, rosa rugosa, pine, and something else that I have never been able to describe— woodsy and sweet that tells me I am back on that coast. I kept my own company for those hours, reading and writing and walking as I was drawn. I wandered around the western coast of the island to Lobster Cove, sat on the rocks and wrote awhile, watched the tide and  family of small ducks. I watched the people passing on their hikes around the whole island, trying to get it all done before they had to be back on their ferry back to the mainland. I settled my muscles more deeply into the rockside. I listened to the pound of water around me everywhere, the unceasingness of it, the not restlessness but persistence. The sea was in my whole body. I didn’t swim while I was on Monhegan, but I got into the ocean almost every day of vacation otherwise, braving the cold morning waves sometimes, more often waiting until the sea and my body had warmed up some and taking longer swims in the afternoon. So the salt was everywhere on me, my hairs stood straight up in stiff peaks. I listened to the chickadees, the blue jays, the birsdsong weather of the western shore of the us. And I couldn’t tell anyone about it or perform my experience for anyone using social media. I just had to be there and feel it.

Why is it so difficult to let ourselves be fully on vacation? Why do we think the world will fall apart if we’re not there to manage everything?

I remembered who I was when I lived in this part of the country — a seeker, terrified and hopeful. I remembered the kind of pace I prefer to keep: early to bed, early to rise. On my one morning on the island, I set the timer for 3:45 so I could go out and meet the sunrise, but when I woke, not even the birds were awake yet. I dozed another half an hour, then walked across town in my pajamas — not meeting another soul on the way there or the way back — to climb the wooded path to the lighthouse and watch the clouds at the horizon turn a deep and unctious orange-pink. It was me and the seagulls out there, and one bright goldfinch who joined me as I did a sun salutation on the rocks behind the one-room schoolhouse. Then I walked back to my room, with its view of the ocean pounding into the tail of Manana Island, wrote some more of my letter home, and then got so sleepy that I climbed back into bed to sleep until breakfast time.

While I was on Monhegan, I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a book about the strengths of introverts and how we can take care of ourselves in a culture that valorizes extroversion — those who prefer time alone are often looked on as suspect. I thought about how ashamed I have felt that I don’t have a community of friends that looks like my sweetheart’s: she will get together with friends for coffee or dinner dates or breakfast or other gatherings many times a week, sometimes connecting with many folks a single day. This exhausts me just to hear about — but it brings her alive. The friend I am closest to is someone who lives across the country from me— we talk by phone about weekly (ideally, at least!) and then it’s to leave messages, not even to have a direct conversation one-on-one — that happens much less frequently. Reading this book helped me to feel less guilty about the way I am: I didn’t organize many opportunities to see my east coast friends while I was on vacation because I knew I needed as much open space as possible to really let the vacation take root in me. It reminded me that I am — we are, each of us — ok in our own temperaments. It is ok for you to want to be with people every hour of the day if that’s what feeds you; and it’s ok for me to take the time alone that feeds me.

I remembered that my preference is to have wide open space in my days, where the writing can come in. I had forgotten about that — or made myself feel bad about it — even though I have created a life in which this is available to me. I simply forget, or succumb to the extrovert-demand of the culture, thinking that I should fill my non-family, non-workshop hours with meetings and coffees and networking opportunities — and being online, on social media, is the same experience for me as going to a party — I get overwhelmed and fragmented really fast, losing my focus.

For me, living a writing life means cultivating focus, nurturing time to let ideas and stories percolate, open, and expand. When I am living this way, I blossom. It’s not that I don’t want to see people, or have close friendships. It’s that I tend to be closest to people who can go for months without hearing from me, and then fall into a real conversation about what’s actually going on for us when we do get together. If you struggle with the sense that there’s something wrong with you because you don’t want to be with people every minute of every day (as our culture tends to encourage), I’d invite you to check out Quiet (or another that I read often and appreciate: Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto).

Maybe that’s all I want to say about this for now. I am slowly returning to my non-vacation life. I’ve decided to come back to this daily morning writing practice for the blog, to reclaim those morning thoughts for this place. and to work on my books. It’s time to visit the garden, move with the dog. Later this morning I will get into all that email that’s waiting for me — and then maybe the dog and I will go to the beach. How will you take care of your deepest needs this day? How will you hold open space for your words to come? Be easy with you, ok? And please keep writing.

all the girls were Princess Leia

Good morning good morning. I woke up this morning to a dark orange shard pushing up over the Oakland hills, announcing the arrival of the sun. Out front of the house, in the lucky garden, one of the nasturtium plants has opened a single, sunrise-colored flower. Welcome to May – what beauty have you seen already today?

Those Santa Ana winds knocked me out yesterday (do we call them Santa Anas up here in Northern California, or is that just a SoCal thing?) — I spent most of the day laid out on the couch, watching movies and resting. It’s as if those strong, hot winds just reached inside my bones, took all my energy away, and replaced it with feverishness and ache. Today I’m feeling better (though still taking things slow), grateful for slightly cooler weather, and am thinking about remembering.

Yesterday I watched a number of movies — Crooklyn, Ordinary People, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Red Hook Summer — while I was crashed out on the couch. Three were period movies — set in the 60s, 70s, and 80s — and the last is meant to be present day Red Hook, in Brooklyn. Miraculously, only one of these films showed any sexual violence, and it was the last one I might have expected. (I’m going to have to write more about Red Hook Summer in another post.)

What do I want to say about these movies? They had me thinking about family and connectedness and struggle — about what story would I tell about my sister and I back in the 70s, about our life with our friends in the country between Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska, in 1975, 76, 77. What would I tell about our clothes, our haircuts, the shoes we wore, about the David (or was it Shawn?) Cassidy posters on our friends’ walls? How would I show my mother — not working outside the home, lodged in a newly-built salt-box country house, raising a garden and two girls, trying on vegetarianism in the land of cattle farmers and beef, making roadtrips into the city to visit the natural foods store, where we got samples of kefir from the shopkeeper who looked like Mr. Hooper. Could I give you her berkenstock sandals, her tall boots with the square heels, her bell bottoms and her halter tops? Could I give you her hair folded up into a bun like the drawings of the women in the Laurel’s Kitchen cookbook, and, later, her hair in a short bob that she curled under at the bottom? Could I give you how we ran around through the open space of one another’s back yards, the lack of fences, the way the wheat fields towered over us in the summertime? Could I give all of that back to myself? We raced, played tag, played with the neighbor’s much coveted slip-n-slide; my mom picked mint from the patch at the side door for her sun tea. We made snow angels in the wintertime and wore fat red children’s skis to slide over the little hill down into the drainage ditch.

All of this lives in the story of Before. I could call it a story that needs resurrecting, but I am beginning to wonder if it’s actually dead. Sometimes we can put something down for years, decades, and think that it has died, when in fact it’s simply living quietly in the lining of your breath, in your cells, never abandoned you, never died away.

The story of Before stretches until 1982 — that’s when I met my stepfather. Everything else is After.

But Before still matters; it still exists, it still lives, still is part of my infrastructure. Monarch butterflies in the roadside sunflowers. Splashing in the blow-up pool on the patio out the sliding-glass back door. Churning vanilla ice cream in the wooden bucket filled with ice and rock salt. Smells of charcoal and lighter fluid. Body achy after a day running in the sun. Hide and seek. Fingers and tongue turned purple with dye from mulberries. Exquisite boredom. My parents’ deep silences that infuse around every memory. They put me on a bus one day in 1977 and then I was off to the Waverly Elementary School. On the bus, the driver played top-40 songs on the radio, and we kindergartners played doctor in the way back of the bus on the way home at midday. We stared out the windows at the long stretches of barely-undulant farmland, at the long trains railroading alongside us; we put our arms out the half-windows and tried to the the long-haul truckers to blow their airhorns for us. The bus smelled like cleaning fluid and those new leather seats.

I don’t remember getting home from school. I don’t remember family dinners. I don’t remember birthdays or Christmases. I remember one weeknight getting to stay up late to watch the Wizard of Oz on network television —we ate pancakes in our pajamas, at suppertime! All of us were there, all four in this family of quiet, sitting on shag carpet and the rough couch. The tv was a little box with rabbit-ear antennas. We changed the channel with the knob. We were in heaven, weren’t we, my sister and I? Didn’t we know we had everything? Didn’t my parents know that we had everything? On the playground at recess the kids played Star Wars — all the girls were Princess Leia. We spun and spun on the old metal merry-go-round, holding fast to the bars, pretending we were careening through space on the Millennium Falcon. My mother took me to see the movie when I was five — I don’t remember. She tells the story now with laughter, evident pleasure in the memory, how inappropriate it was for a five year old, how I shouted out, didn’t understand, asked her to explain what was happening, hid from Darth Vader.

Later, in the After, I didn’t ask her to explain, and there turned out to be no place to hide from the villain. The bad man got into everywhere. And even so — even still — he did not mange to uproot all of the Before from my bones. I just put it away for safekeeping, protection. I re-meet Before when I knead whole-wheat bread like my mother did, or push the lawnmower like my father did, or dust garden soil from my knees like my mother did, or run hard up city neighborhood sidewalks like that little girl did — hair streaming behind her, arms open to morning, the dust of butterfly wings and buttercups beneath her chin.