Tag Archives: restorying

It’s not your fault

Good Tuesday morning, writers & writers-to-be — the sun is shining outside and the guys who are fixing my car window have got the vacuum running strong and my poor little dirty girl is getting a bit of a cleanup.

What’s outside your window today?

My car was broken into last night. I parked in a busy lot in a bustling part of town, and my sweetheart and headed off to pick up our bit of take out. When we got back to the car, fewer than ten minutes later, a back window had been smashed in and the bag that I’d inherited when a dear friend passed away — filled with nothing more than a couple of writing notebooks and some flyers for upcoming workshops — was gone.

I was quite confused as I approached my little car — I thought, Wait a minute, isn’t that where I parked? Why is that smashed up car in my space? Oh no — that smashed up car is mine.

And then I decided to run around the neighborhood to try and catch whoever it was. I stopped people walking and said, Hey, did you see a guy running past here carrying a brown bag? (Please note my assumptions.) Of course, no one had.

We’d just been gone a minute! How far could they have gone?

I thought I could catch whoever it was. I thought maybe I could get back my bag and what it held — the project notebook filled with ideas and visions and plans for upcoming writing ourselves whole workshops, events and books; the notebook filled with writes still to be typed up for the writing ourselves whole book I’m compiling; the notebook of workshop writes from Saturday’s Liberatory Potential of Erotic Writing workshop up in Sacramento.  I thought I could get back the little (empty) coin purse I’d received from my mother many years ago, and my first business card case that I was so proud of.

The truth is that whoever stole that bag must have been disappointed: no money, no cell phone, no computer. Nothing to try and sell but maybe the bag itself. They don’t even want what’s inside — why couldn’t they have just dropped it at the edge of the parking lot?

My sweetheart called around to window replacement companies, and we came home and shared our take out Thai meal. We watched a movie. We tried to redirect our attention from fury, disappointment and violation to next steps and connection. We went to bed. Neither of us slept well.

I was up in the middle of the night rehashing my choices last night: If only I hadn’t taken the car out at all…; if only I had parked in the first spot I saw, that brightly-lit one…; if only we’d talked to those guys in that car making noises at us instead of ignoring them (were they they ones?)…; if only I hadn’t re-locked the car as we were walking away, thereby letting those guys know which one was ours; if only …; if only…; if only…

I’d done some of this at dinner: I should have taken my bag out of the car, I said. I know better than to leave my bag in the back seat of my car! How long have I been living in the Bay Area? I know not to leave anything enticing in plain view.

My sweetheart said to me, This was not your fault. You didn’t cause this.

Period. No exceptions.

And then I got it: Right. If only I hadn’t been wearing that short skirt…

We smiled rueful smiles at each other. It’s almost impossible not to blame ourselves when we are violated in this way — whether it’s our car, our writing, our home, or our body that got broken into. We have been trained away from putting the blame squarely where it belongs: on the perpetrator.

I tried to remind myself of this during my middle-of-the-night self-recriminations. If only I’d… Jen, it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It doesn’t matter that you left a bag visible on your back seat — no one should have smashed through your back window to grab it. Period.

What about, If only that motherfucker hadn’t decided to smash in my window and steal from me…?

Maybe you know something about this kind of self-blame, of blame we take on ourselves because the person who should hold it is unknown to us, or won’t accept it. If we are to blame, we think to ourselves, then we can make different choices in the future, ones that will keep us safe. If we can be mad at ourselves, we have somewhere to direct our fury.

It’s not your fault can be hard to believe if we’ve been hearing the opposite message for our whole lives. Today I’m doing some acting-as-if. I’m noticing how deeply ingrained are those stories that we bring on our own misfortune, that we are to blame for the violence committed against us. We are not to blame. It’s not our fault. Maybe if we say it over and over, we will begin to direct our anger, we will be able to put the blame where it belongs.

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Are you blaming yourself for something someone else did to you? Do you struggle with the message that it wasn’t your fault? Can you take some time to write this today? What are the ways you are taking responsibility for their actions? What if, no matter what choices you made, you didn’t ask to be harmed, you didn’t deserve to be harmed, and you are not to blame? What if that’s true?

I am sending love and compassion to whoever it was who smashed my window and stole my words — at least now and again, I’m breathing in this practice. May they find peace and the roots of peace. May we all find peace and the roots of peace. I’m grateful to you, today, too, and grateful for your words.

questioning the broken story

patterns-closeIn Tuesday’s post, I said: How we tell our stories matters. The words we use for our stories matters. The metaphors and symbolic language, the imagery – all matter, all influence how we perceive ourselves, our bodies, our physical being, our agency, our history and our possibility.

For instance, consider the story inside the word broken as it gets applied to survivors of violence. Broken is commonly incorporated as a metaphor into survivor stories – he left me broken. He ruined me. She left me in pieces. He tore apart my soul.

I climbed into this fragmented narrative, this narrative of fragmentation, when I began to identify as an incest survivor. Identity is a story: we don’t just take on a label when we identify as something, we take on the narratives that accompany that identity – we have to interact with that identity’s story. The incest/trauma survivor story contained these: “broken, ruined, dead.”

These are powerful phrasings, necessary to use to describe how the body feels, how the victim feels, how the raped child feels when she is violated by someone neat to be a protector, when she is physically and psychically assaulted, then silenced, shamed and threatened, then psychologically tortured so that she will comply with the abuser’s demands of silent complicity. We need a brutal narrative to match the brutality of our inner experience. We need a story that will wake people up, we need a story that will make standers-by understand why we need help. We are attempting to counteract and supplant the other, deeply entrenched stories: the child is the parent’s possession to do with as the parent wishes; children often lie and are not to be believed when they say their parents or other adults are hurting them; child abuse is a family problem and outsiders should not intervene; children often invite sexual acts; America puts women and children first – those stories hold powerful sway, culturally. It makes sense that with the rise of an Incest Survivor advocacy community, we would reach for language as incendiary as the experiences and silencings we suffered through: he might as well have killed me; he left me for dead; I felt like a ghost; I didn’t exist anymore.

As I came into an Incest identity, I latched onto the story of broken: And the more I told the story of how broken I felt, the more the story of broken is what I inhabited.

Broken was big enough to explain how I felt. Broken was also irreversible. A shattered vase might get glued back together but you can always see the cracks, the scars – and that vase was now weaker, easier to break the next time. We were broken and proud of it. Fuck you, we said. We might get better, but we were never going to be the same. He ruined us. He broke us. He stole our childhood. He stole my adolescence. He broke my sex and now I would never be normal.

These stories express our extreme disenfranchisement from our own agency. And we tell them over and over and over – and, each time we tell the story, we deepen its neuronal pathway inside us, making it easier and faster for us to tell again the next time.

Just a few years ago, I began to question: What if that story was a lens that I was looking at my experience through? Certainly I’m using broken metaphorically, to express my sense of internal fragmentation, and of not being a normal and regular (which, my necessity, means unbroken and whole) woman. Aren’t I?

What if there was another story, another lens I could look at my experience through? What if broken didn’t have to be my name? What if I am whole, my sex is whole, my complexity is whole? What if I struggle, still have questions, but am whole, intact?

 What if I could tell a different story?

“The truth about stories is that they’re all we are.”

Taking a stand against a cultural story and meta-narrative is resistance work, builds muscle.

In learning to live outside the lens or silo of Broken, I am flung (if I’m not careful) headlong into the relentlessly cheerful Gratitude story: whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

What if I didn’t want a cultural narrative, a grant application anecdote, a Hallmark card, a cup of soup for my soul? What if I was ready for a less-than-simple story, something more complex, more complicated, more real; something less pithy, less easily told?

In our survivors writing groups, this is what we hold open room and hold out hope for – the messy story, the fragmented telling, the rape story with jokes and laughter in it, the story of the loving parent who put his hands inside his child, the story of turning still for support to the mother who abandoned you – the stories that friends, surveys, some therapists, family, nonprofits, social workers, activists and advocates have a hard time hearing (literally comprehending) and holding because these stories don’t match the language we have acquiesced to as a culture: ruin, devastation, dismal, hopeless, broken.

Our human, lived stories are more complicated than one lens can reveal.

Outside of one story are a hundred other stories. Outside of Broken is frightening, still – I feel uncontained, sprawling. I also experience myself as having greater agency. Not broken or unbroken, intact and imperfect. Wounded, sore, struggling, whole. Human, like all the rest of the humans around me struggling with something.

Thank you for the stories that have carried you this far, and for the stories you are beginning to question and upend. Thank you for that risking. Thank you for your words.

opening to new stories

Thomas King writes, in The Truth About Stories, “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.”

What is a story? It is a rehashing of events, a narrative, an anecdote, a lie, a truth. The dictionary isn’t helping me here, just giving me synonyms. What is a story? It’s a telling or a making up. It’s offering an account of an experience, so someone else can can come to know or understand what happened. It’s a fabrication, a weaving into existence something that wasn’t, that didn’t exist, until we put it into precise words.

 Story is contextual. And who determines a story’s context? “She’s telling stories” is the way some folks call us liars. But we know what truths come from storyteller’s mouths.

 Thomas King also writes, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” He repeats this line throughout his slender book, driving the point home: we create ourselves, we know and understand ourselves, through the stories we tell and/or listen to and believe about ourselves, about those like us, about our communities, society, families, world.

Trauma is a story. Identity is a story. Religion is a story. Sex is a story. The body is a story.

Yes, the body is also bone and tissue, chemical reactions, pulses, electrical leaps. The body is fluid and organ, is emergence and excretion, is breath and heartbeat. The body exists as an object in this precise moment, entirely independent of its context, its historical situation, its experiences. Doesn’t it?

Would this body be what and how it is independent of the stories I have told about it? What is my body without its stories, its histories and herstories? What is yours?

Is my DNA a story? My musculature? What can you learn from the story of my skin, her scars and stretch marks, her stains and curves? What can you read in the complicated interweaving of my neuronal infrastructure (which would be transformed if the stories of my body were transformed)?

We use story every day, throughout the day. When someone asks how we slept, we offer a story of deems and waking. When a friend calls to tell us about her morning, she gives us a story, an anecdote. We tell childhood stories, baby stories, coming out stories, the story of how we met, the story of an illness, the story of our experience of abuse, the story of our recovery. When I ask someone, “Do you know my story?” – I have a particular story in mind. I meant the story of my trauma, most of the time – and this is the story of my body.

Every story is an illumination and an occlusion. Every story highlights one side of a situation while leaving out other information. This is out of necessity. We can’t remember or apprehend every detail of a happening or an experience. We remember what’s important – we tell what we remember and, over time, what we remember is what we’ve told repeatedly. We believe our own stories. We can forget that there are other ways to tell, understand, consider those stories – and each different telling provides a different lens through which to consider ourselves and our experiences.

How we tell our stories matters. The words we use for our stories matters. The metaphors and symbolic language, the imagery – all matter, all influence how we perceive ourselves, our bodies, our physical being, our agency, our history and our possibility.

What stories do you have about yourself and your experience that no longer serve you? What happens when you shift, examine or change the stories you’ve been living with, and by, and through? What happens when you expose yourself to other people’s stories, really listen to them, and consider how they compare to your own?

the shift of our stories

graffiti detail: bright slashes of red blue black yellow silverGood Monday to you. Here is candlelight and cooling tea, here is the chill of late October morning, here is the click of keys into a quiet kitchen, here is the ache of morning. What is hovering inside and about you at this time of faeries and visitations?

Today I am thinking about story: the stories we share with others in order to explain ourselves, the way those stories, our storying, shift over time — and what those shifts can tell us about how we are healing. Continue reading

trusting our soul fire

graffiti of a bird behind barsGood morning, my friends, and good Monday! I’m here on the other side, just waking up. Slow morning and all the clothes are on inside out, waiting for the tea water to boil and for the words to come.

This morning I am thinking about instinct, intention and ambition. I spent some time yesterday, again, with the women who run with the wolves, reading the chapter about soul hunger. When we have been starved of our true selves, we will grab for anything that looks like it will feed us; how do we learn to trust our instincts again, to only take on and in what will truly feed and sustain our souls?

Yesterday Matthew Fox gave me Hildegarde von Bingen in conversation with Audre Lorde, spoke of a reengagement with an eros that is embodied, that inhabits our every movement, that is about our passionate communion with life.  He mentioned, too, Women Who Run With the Wolves, which brought me back into this book’s stories. We who have been starved or have starved our souls, we who have been trapped and dried up and without access to that which fills us up and moves us forward (which is, of course, our erotic self) can often stuff ourselves full of whatever comes our way as soon as we are freed from what bondage has kept us separate from our souls. And — at least in my experience — we can get strung out on that feeling of being released.

(Some explicit languaging of trauma below the fold in this post: be easy with you)

Continue reading

the deep vein of your body’s true story

stencil graffiti that reads: I say / the say/ the say/ says/ me/say/sayGood morning good morning good morning. Who is feeding you this Wednesday? What does it sound like where you are? Here, I think it’s mostly quiet outside — there’s a lot of clamor in my head this morning, so it’s hard to say for sure.

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Tonight’s the Erotic Reading Circle, 7:30-9:30pm at the Center for Sex and Culture — if you are local to the Bay Area and are doing any writing that involves sexuality or desire, I invite you to join us. The folks who gather at the ERC consistently impress me with the power and variety of their work, and, too, with the generosity of their feedback for one another. It’s a good space for sharing new work, and a safe space for folks who are just starting to offer their work to others. It would be great to welcome you into the Circle!

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Today I am thinking about stories, and about this idea of re-storying, which is like restoring, but with story, right? Here are two quotes that are with me this morning:

Thomas King, in The Truth About Stories, writes,

The truth about stories is that that’s all we are. ‘You can’t understand the world without telling a story,’ the Anishinabe writer Gerald Vizenor tells us. ‘There isn’t any center to the world but a story.’

And then there’s this from Dorothy Allison’s interview in Writing Below the Belt:

Sexually, I have a fetish about truth telling. It does help in my work. I find it profoundly arousing to watch somebody struggle to articulate their desires. One of the things my girlfriend and I say together, around this whole thing, is that you can have anything you want if you have the courage to ask for it. But having that courage to ask for it, wow! So we set up situations where you can have anything, honey — you just have to be able to ask for it.

Hold those two quotes against each other for a moment.

These are the questions living in me right now (living is perhaps to passive a verb. Exploding is a little bit more accurate): What are the stories you are telling that shape you, that shape what’s possible for your life, what’s possible for or around your big life-desires? What would it mean if you could find exactly the language for what it is you want? What if you released that language, that desire, into the world with no expectations, no demands?

I am thinking about story today, and how it relates to how I have been living in my body for these nearly-forty years, but most especially over the last about-twenty years, since I both breaking contact with my stepfather and coming out as queer.Those two life-altering, body-and-deep-sense-of-self-altering experiences, occurred during the same time frame for me, and so they have been woven into each other, one entirely of and about the other. My queerness was necessarily about my trauma. My experience of incest was entirely queered. I can’t, still, take them apart –and don’t want or need to. That story is still true for me.

The story of my body has changed many times for me over the years — in particular, the story of my queer and queerly-gendered body. When I first came out I was so often so excited to be in this body and accepted; I found my desire and seduction on the dance floor, and fed it to everyone who could meet my eyes. And then, as I moved more fully into a gay identity, and more fully, too, into a sense of myself as survivor, I wanted to be visible, acceptable and protected, and offered my body into butchness the way the knight offers himself into his armor, and for similar reasons. I wanted the sword and shield, to defend someone’s honor (sometimes even that of my own inside-self), wanted a safe reason to kneel down. But armor only contains what we allow it to, and the girl in me kept leaking out, through all the seams, making herself visible, insisting that she be known, no matter how hard I fought and buckled and bound. So finally, some few years ago, I renounced (didn’t I?) and mourned that butch self and allowed (do we really get to allow this?) my body to mean girl again in the world, to mean visible woman, to be read as femme. I wanted to be all and only girl, Farrah Fawcett, please & thank you. (I have discovered that she lodged somewhere deep in me, and early, as the epitome of female sexiness, and am kind of delighted by how that marks me as of a particular time and place.) But, oh, sometimes our bodies reveal their stories to us, show us that we are not in control of them, and I came to understand that the interweaving that marked me as a child, that tomboy girl with dirty scuffed knees in the skirt that twirled high and a book clutched always in her hands, marks me still, that I bring both and more with me everywhere my body chooses to carry me. That I get to claim that both-and-more-ness as my birthright.

And the sense that I am actually able to claim anything, I mean fundamentally understanding anything, about my body as birthright is more powerful than I have words for right now. You understand, don’t you? At just the moment when I was meant to begin to learn my body’s own stories, gendered and sexual stories, stories of her desires and possibility, there was a man who entered my life and, soon, my body, who took it upon himself to retrain me into his stories. And I have been living in and struggling with those stories ever since (at the same time that I was trying to learn how to talk, how to use the same words that other people use, how to be human), and did not ever expect to –did not even consider the option that I might– reach within myself a deep vein of my own body’s true story. That I could hold in my hands a glimmer of this sense: this is who my body would have been anyway, even if he hadn’t come into it and tried to blow it apart.

Do you know what that means, why I feel lifted off the ground these days, like song and blown plum blossoms?

So there’s a new story rising like bread in me, rising like candleflame, rising like a skirt over the subway grate, rising like love and open hands, and I don’t have quite the language for it yet, but it’s a profoundly new articulation about the possibilities for and of my body. Not just about what my body can do  — about what it can be, what it can mean.

That’s as far as I can get into it just right now — there’s more, I know, and I’m journaling it, and will bring more here as I have it. For now, though, use those quotes up there as a prompt, if you want. Take 10 minutes (I’m looking at you there on your first writing morning) and let yourself into the stories you, or your characters, tell about their lives, tell about their bodies, their desires. What are those stories? What do you (they) want the stories to be? As ever, follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

I’m grateful for you today. Thank you for the freedom and shelter you have offered your own and others’ stories. Thank you for the hard work of healing you’ve done, and do. Thank you thank you for your words.

everybody is a story

image of women standing around ironing tables, working and talkingThis is one of the quotes I think of when I consider what the Writing Ourselves Whole tagline (restorying our lives) can mean:

“Everybody is a story. When I was a child, people sat around kitchen tables and told their stories. We don’t do that so much anymore. Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time. It is the way wisdom gets passed along, the stuff that helps us to live a life worth remembering. Despite the awesome powers of technology, many of us still do not live very well. We may need to listen to each other’s stories once again.”

- Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, from Kitchen Table Wisdom

calling ourselves

graffiti of a woman, facing left, with a word bubble before her, "Who am I?"A dark morning with a bright moon outside, and I’m collected up on the couch with my little candle light and cup of mint-dandelion-green tea. Outside the moonlight is bright through the trees, lightening up the cloudful sky.

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Sometimes I feel like I want this blog to be even more of a resource for those who are survivors of sexual trauma. And then I wrangle with that identity, with even the language there: for us, survivors. When I say survivor, I mean people who have experienced sexual abuse. Other people mean someone who has experienced domestic violence, or someone who has experienced cancer, someone who has had a relative die, someone who lived through a car crash. Survivor means ‘one who lives through affliction’ or ‘one who remains alive or in existence,’ ‘to persist after,’ ‘to remain functional or usable’…

So here’s where I’m torn: between wanting to be a useful resource for survivors of sexual trauma, and not wanting to further that identity category at all, because once we ‘own’ that label, we step into its language, we are shaped by it. And I want us to be bigger than survivor, bigger than thriver, bigger than these experiences. I don’t know that I want to use the phrase incest survivor to define myself all the time anymore. Sometimes, yes, and it’s not a thing I’m going to deny or remove from my bio. But does it have to be the first line, the first thing people know about me? This isn’t about shame, but about how I shape myself, what I think is possible and knowable myself. The language we use for ourselves defines us for ourselves, as well as for others.

Maybe for the first time in my life, I am feeling this way. I used to get super annoyed with people who would talk that way, assume that they were completely in denial. Didn’t they get it? If you experienced this, you are this. It’s the way things are.

I don’t want us to rid ourselves of these categories, because we categorize, we humans; it’s what our brains do. What I want are different words — instead of using the word survivor, I might use the phrase, people who experienced sexual violence. First of all, it’s more precise, and more people will understand what I mean right away. Second, this language defines us first as people, rather than as incest or child sexual abuse, which “survivor” can do.

Sometimes we need that place in us forefronted. I know I have. I have needed people to meet me and my work through that lens, and it’s a frightening thing now to want to find a different lens, different language. If I am not only, or first and foremost, incest, then what am I? I have said, in the not so distant past, maybe even here in this blog, that Incest is the main lens that I see life through, that I meet every experience through, that shapes and colors everything. Am I wanting to take those glasses off? Can I? Is that allowed, or possible? Maybe that’s some of this nausea, too, that queasiness, that question, this blurred, new vision.

How we call ourselves matters, because it determines how we define ourselves, what we understand ourselves capable of; every word, every label, every identity category has its attendant, often unspoken, rules and regulations, guidelines, boundaries.

If we use different language, playful language, even, to define ourselves, can we call out different parts of ourselves?

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An interesting write can be to take 10 minutes, open your notebook, and write down all the identities you (or your character) walk with: mother, daughter, sister, brother, queer, straight, worker, boss, left-handed, trans, man, woman, genderqueer, midwestern, new yorker, survivor… write down as many as you can think of. Notice which ones seem to be at odds with one another, and why that might be. Which ones are most important to your life right now? Which ones have been most important to your life in the past? Are these identities you have chosen, or that you were born with, that someone else determines? Choose one, or more, of these identities, if you want, and write your history with it, write its story: when you knew that you were identified as such, and what it meant. Are there different words for this identity, either communally shared or that you have made up for yourself?

As always, follow your writing wherever it seems to want to go.

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Thank you for your broad vision this morning, for the ways you can look around the edges of the boundaries that someone else set for you. Thank you for your resilience and new and playful languaging, for your gorgeous words.

Why sexuality and sexual trauma writing together, in the same ‘house’?

I still panic, sometimes, talking about the fact that I lead both erotic writing and sexual trauma survivors writing workshops; there’s still that ingrained sense, for me, that these two things just don’t go together. I don’t think I probably need to explain this as often as I think I need to – and yet, every now and again, I dive back into the why.

Why sexuality and sexual trauma writing together, in the same ‘house’? Restorying our sexuality lets us come back here, into our bodies, the site of trauma, the site of violence against us if we are survivors of sexual trauma. Restorying, writing our desire, our history and too our now longing, re-embodies us in a safe-ish way (writing’s not completely without risk, of course: if the writing is to carry and convey the depth and breadth and truth of a story, an experience or possibility and that means the writing needs to be embodied and that’s a big fucking deal for sexual trauma survivors – embodiment). Writing is a way to settle into ourselves, slow back inside our skin – not the only way. One way.

When we write desire – any desire: fantasy or fiction or what just happened this afternoon – we are back in our skin, we experience the want, we feel its flesh and tingle and joy, and, too, struggle and ache and loss and fear. We can write, and so we can feel, a body free of flashbacks – and, too, we are deeply familiar with the truth of an erotic desire riddled with holes and loss and so we can describe it fully, gorgeously, achingly real and hot.

We who are sexual trauma survivors know how to embody another’s ostensible desire, because that was our job. What erotic writing can allow us to do is come into ourselves, our own wonders and imaginings – allows us to smell and taste ourselves again, or for the first time.

That’s where these two – sexual trauma and erotic writing – come together for me, are necessary together for me. In writing about sexual trauma, we can forget – we can wish to forget – about the weight of erotic desire. We can want to wipe it from our skin because that very desire sends blood pulsing through the body that was raped, makes flush the landscape of loss and terror, and who wouldn’t want to forget that place?

But we inhabit the scene of the crime. We can’t ever fully vacate this place, this body, not while we’re living: and an embodied erotics, a deeply creative lust for the world, was our birthright, long before we were born. We deserve to settle back fully into our bodies again. One way I’ve worked myself back up to the edges of my skin and beyond is through writing it.

We can claim now the heavy trail of longing, bent or shaped by our survival, we can eroticize shame, if we need to, we can claim a chosen pain because consent changes everything. We can write exactly the sex we want and deserve, and when we write it we embody it, and when we embody it, that’s a reclamation. That’s a restorying. That’s a restoration. What was slashed and burned can always take new life again, given time and space from the trauma. We tend this wound, this body, this site. Erotic writing can be damn joyful – and that joy is the tilling, the rainwater, the harvest