Tag Archives: sister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radical self care as upheaval (part 2) – finding the time, finding the words

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

As someone who has again allowed herself to get overly busy, where did I suddenly get the time to spend a full day or two in the south bay with family? Me, who rarely feels she has time to see friends, who is overwhelmed with all that’s involved in running a business alone, who can’t find the time to finish the books she’s been working on for years — suddenly there was time in my week to (want to!) run someone else’s errands, wash someone else’s dishes, clean someone else’s catbox. (Of course, it goes without saying that there was also time to hold someone else’s brand new baby — but everyone can understand that, right?)

It helped that almost none of my winter workshops filled to baseline capacity, and so most had to be cancelled — the financial panic that caused was mitigated by the fact that I had more time to spend with this family that has recently come to occupy actual, physical space in my everyday life.

It also helped that I stopped writing almost completely during the two weeks after the baby’s birth — that opened up a lot of time as well. I couldn’t even imagine sitting down in front of the notebook (not to mention this blog) and trying to find language for what I had experienced and witnessed, or what my sister had displayed — a capacity and resilience and determination that she pulled up from somewhere in the earth, drew into her body, and used to deliver this child. She had a coterie of supporters around her, a swaddle of women holding her as she pushed and rested, and a husband who kept himself in front of her eyes at every moment, reminding her that she could do this, carrying as much as he could with her, encouraging her to rest, to take it one step, one breath at a time. There were no words for what it meant that I could be a safe person for her there in this setting, that she trusted me to be there, given our history, given the history of our bodies, given what our bodies meant for and to each other.

At one point, midway through her laboring, when she was taking one of those sudden naps that laboring women are able to take — so exhausted from the work they do during the contractions that they are able to fall immediately to sleep when the pain subsides and they are given a reprieve — I burst into tears. I was sitting next to my sister, witnessing this majestic capacity, so grateful that she had been able to bring herself to this place in her healing and struggle that she could give herself this gift, this experience and life she’d always wanted: to have a child, to become a mother.

I was remembering who we used to be, I was remembering the girl who couldn’t see herself as worth any love, I was thinking about all the work she’d done over the previous decade to allow herself to get here. I was thinking about how grateful I was that she survived. I was in awe of what she was doing. I had all of our history in my body in that moment, and I couldn’t keep it in anymore and so I sobbed, as quietly as I could, sitting beside her, not at all sure how I could be of use to someone who had the ability to walk with the kind of pain she was enduring. The doula came over to be and comforted me. She thought I was sad about the pain my sister was enduring in this moment. She said, This is just what women can do — what our bodies are capable of. I couldn’t say a thing. I didn’t want the past to be voiced in that room. I could not say, I am crying because I am so grateful she lived long enough to get here — that we both did. I let the doula hug me, and was thankful for her generosity in that moment, even though she didn’t know everything that filled the room around and underneath us.

And I certainly couldn’t even begin to find words to describe what that new human looked like when he slid from my sister’s body, what he sounded like when he first made his cry to this side of the world, what his eyes did when they met air instead of fluid, what he looked like on my sister’s chest. so close to her face and her husband’s face, their looks of delight — these words don’t even come close to capturing the experience, offering it back to them, offering it back to you.

I had a journal I’d intended to keep for my nephew, writings from each day of the first months of his new life. I wrote in it before he was born, and haven’t returned to it. Instead of writing about this new life we were all circling around and inhabiting, I was living it. I didn’t want to pull away and examine what was going on. I wanted to be in the mix. I wanted to be there for every minute of his breathing, and I couldn’t be. I’m not his parent — I don’t live with him; I will never be the primary person in his life — but I could do as much as possible. I’ve put hundreds of miles on my odometer so that I can put myself in that room, with the sister who is my heartbeat, and this new child who now lives inside the breath that my sister and I share.

(In tomorrow’s post: navigating deep depression in the aftermath of a radical life change.)

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

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

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

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

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

Now the body and soul are asking for something more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1: It’s Writing Ourselves Whole Month…

Assata's Affirmation

Oakland graffiti of Assata’s Affirmation

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

I believe in life.

from “Affirmation,” by Assata Shakur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks

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

sister stories that continue

Good morning — it’s dark out there, and I can hear the helicopters. Or maybe that’s just my old refrigerator readying for takeoff.  I’m not awake enough to say for sure.

Not enough sleep last night and here I am awake this morning into the blog instead of the notebook, wanting to talk about sistering and change. This weekend I heard a story about a long waiting, about barrenness and believing for a long time that there will only be barrenness, that nothing (after trauma) can bear fruit — and finding, after a long waiting, that there is a flower where before there were only bare branches; finding an orchard of beauty to feed you where for years before you had found only wishes and loss.

This will be short this morning, as there’s a lot to do today, beginning with some rest and replenishment time. This weekend my sister came to see me and we were safe together. We held space with and for one another. After years of being afraid that we would never be healed enough to be close again, I felt comfort and ease in her presence (and in my body when we were together). This is so deep and new that I can’t quite find words for it yet — what’s new is the part inside me understanding that we are ok. Not that we will be ok — that we are. Continue reading

singing and sleep away

graffiti fromm Istanbul: two yellow hands holding the strings of balloon eyesgood morning good morning good morning.

It’s hard to be chipper in the grey, isn’t it? At least, that’s true for me this morning.

I’m having a longing for true (i.e., Midwestern) summer. Someone brought deliciously deviled eggs to our Write Whole: Survivors Write potluck last night (we have a potluck on the last night of each workshop, a wonderful chance to share food and a bit more of ourselves as well) and I almost got teary with missing cookouts, family reunions, home food. Maybe this weekend I’ll make some ambrosia salad, of course it won’t be even remotely the same, eating it without all my cousins, my sister, my grandma there.

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Today we’re working on the pup being able to be in her kennel and alone; she seemed like she’d gotten accustomed to this, and pretty easily, too. Then the Mr went away for awhile and I had to leave her a couple of times, and she started having some separation anxiety. It’s not remedial work, though, is it? It’s different work this time around. She doesn’t want to play or eat in the kennel, though I haven’t yet found her a toy that would only live in the crate. That’s the next thing to try.

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Today is a rest day, a transcription day (meaning a day for typing up workshop writes), a walking-with-the-pup day. It’s a day to be present, again, with this homesickness that’s settled into my chest. Maybe I’ll take 20 minutes and look at the cost of tickets to NE, or CO, or both.

And so today, too, I’m thinking (again) about what homesickness means when one doesn’t have a solid or clear sense of where (or what) home is.

The first time I remember feeling homesick was when I went to sleep away camp for the last time (well, at least until band camp when I was starting high school, and where I met my first love — you know about those loves that start at band camp). This was after my mom moved in with the man who would be my stepfather. This was early on in their relationship — I can’t for the life of me remember now why I would have been allowed to go. It was surely a YMCA camp, located somewhere between Lincoln and Omaha. I’d been to sleep-away camp before, back when we’d lived in Lincoln — we would go to day camp for a week or something, and then the last day of camp included an overnight trip (It was at those earlier YMCA camps where I learned to sing “Proud to be an American” whenever I pledged allegiance to the flag. I still have that song memorized. Talk about indoctrination). This time, now that we were in Omaha and now that my parents were divorced, it felt different. This must have been early in their relationship, maybe even before they were married. I wanted so much to get away from the house and then, once I got to the camp with its cabins and bunk beds and strangers, I wanted to be back home with mom and my sister and even with him. I remember feeling confused by this — why did I want to go back there? I felt like it said something good about me, that I was homesick — I wasn’t the bad kid he told me I was. See, I missed them and it hurt! I remember telling them about it (or did I write a letter? How long was I gone for?) after I got home, how I had that feeling — did they name it homesick for me? I think he was glad, proud, that I missed them (him), and that I was safe from his persecution for a little bit after I got home. I don’t remember anything else about that camping trip, just that I was scared to be alone.

So it’s not like I can’t understand where Sophie’s coming from with her separation anxiety.

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Here’s something I noticed last night, though, speaking of senses of home — I felt very much ‘at home’ during the writing workshop. There wasn’t anywhere else I wanted to be, nothing else I wanted to be doing. That was tremendously reassuring and settled something in me that had been afraid.

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As our first prompt last night, I read Martin Jude Farawell’s poem “If I sing” — then we wrote for 20 minutes. Can you give yourself 20 minutes with this prompt today? Notice if there are particular phrases from the poem that stay with you, that spark your writer’s imagination (John Fox also suggests, as a prompt from this poem, filling in the phrase: “If I ___, then I___” as a beginning place.)

I’ve used this poem as a prompt several times in the last year since John Fox first offered it at last summer’s Healing Art of Writing conference, and each time my own response has been different; it’s something to keep in mind, when I’m afraid of offering folks a prompt that they might have had in a previous workshop with me — every time we meet a prompt, we meet it fresh and new; we get to go someplace different from the first time we used the prompt.

Here’s my write from last night:

I sing in the car — it’s about the only place I feel free enough, when I’m behind the wheel, when I’m alone. I put on the country music station or push in one of  my sister’s mix tapes, and I sing, and if I am very lucky — I think it’s about whether or not I’m lucky — I will cry. That hard lump rises, the ache spreads it’s webby fingers from throat full into my chest, my arms, my eyes fill and I catch my breath. Everything gets warbly and thick and then I am not just me now, it’s me and my sister in the back seat of the VW bus or in the old red Mercury Monarch or even later in the black Jetta. we are singing along to the radio, our voices tinny and high, climbing over each other, twinning together. We were showing off; I wanted to know every song better than her, than anyone. We sang Pat Benatar, the Pointer Sisters, Hall and Oates, we sang along to the old folk records at Grandma’s house, we sang with the Beatles and Jody Collins on dad’s old reel-to-reel. We wouldn’t stop, our voices were everywhere, there was nothing we couldn’t capture, emulate, no curve or strain of voice, no fold of tremolo, no tottering pop crescendo, no predictable chord change that we didn’t want to hold in our own mouths. We sang dad’s made-up songs, every Christmas carol, even along with Steve Martin being a wild-and-crazy guy. We mimicked and imitated and even started making up our own songs.

Isn’t it true that once upon a time, you couldn’t shut us up? Who taught us to tuck our sings away? She went on, my baby sister, sang choir in school, then studied opera. She was the designated singer, the one whose voice had a way to go, a frame, a structure, a harness. Neither of us were freefalling through words or melody anymore — one day we were singing along with the cassette tape recording of the Broadway musical they brought home with them from New York City, and the next day the car rides were full only of horror and implausibility; the radio was turned off. There was too much noise already just with him in the car, just with all we weren’t saying. How could it e that, with all we had sung, with all the notes and possibility we learned to turn our throats, our tongues, our voices around, we hadn’t learned to say thing — even just say the one thing — that should have been able to save us?

Thanks to you, today, for your songs. All of them: the ones sung and the ones unsung. Thank you for your writing, too, for your words.

what matters most

graffiti -- tampon with angel wings and a haloGood morning, grey & rainy — happy Summer-in-the-Bay-Area. It looks like a good day to get some inside work done, like maybe book proposals.

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One of the things I love about being closer to San Francisco now is being able to get 89.5 KPOO on the radio again. Tuesday mornings with JJ on the Radio & old-school soul music makes me feel like I’m home, reminds me of being in my little studio back near the Panhandle, the first apartment I ever lived in on my own, trying to figure out who I was going to be… (Please note: I’m still trying to figure out who I’m going to be — )

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Last night, or early this morning, I dreamed about being home, back in Omaha. My sister was there, too, and so was he. We were at that house on 57th St, we had to clean, we wanted to get out before he got home, but once we left to go to some appointment over near 60th and Dodge, we still had to contact him to pick us up. My sister still knew how to contact him. She didn’t remember anything in the city, though — we had to get something to eat, and we were in some building that looked down over the area. A Schlotzsky’s had moved into the space where some fancy restaurant used to be there on Dodge — I said, Look, Schlotzsky’s! Remember them? Sandwiches? We’d first gone to Schlotzsky’s during visitations with dad, way back when. She didn’t remember them, wasn’t interested. I touched her head, smoothed her hair, like maybe a mother would.

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This is maybe a morning of non sequiturs, though it also feels like a morning to dive deep into something and live there for awhile. Outside, it’s actually raining. That’s so rare here in the Bay Area, at least outside of rainy season. Usually we just get very very thick fog, fog so thick it drips and droops.

This morning I’d like to be wandering through the Haight with my notebook, my scarf and small gloves. I’d like to order a large cup of strong French Roast decaf that comes in a big wide mug, then go settle into a corner, open my notebook and write while watching the city people go by. KPOO could be on  the walkman, coming through my headphones. Let’s go back a few years now. Let’s cream the words out onto the page. Let’s make them, let them be, chewy, dense, unstrainable. Let’s let our morning get filled with the joy of arms moving, words thrilling through our fingers, new understandings emerging from the page.

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I’m a bit astounded and so very grateful to everyone who has donated so that I will be able to attend the Tomales Bay Workshops this fall — it’s been less than a week, and already we’re more than a third of the way there, almost half-way! Let me tell you a secret — this is the first writing workshop I’ve applied to, the first writing-related program I’ve done since college. Thanks to you all, I was able to put down the deposit.

16 years ago, I was lying on the rough carpeting in the tiny office that was all mine as the Tech Support person for ValleyNet ISP. The blinds were pulled and the door was locked. I hid out in there a lot. I was sobbing after finishing the last page of Bastard out of Carolina.

Now, finally, I’m going to get to work on my own story with the author who helped me do that work, get to that place of release and transformation.

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We used this prompt last night at the Write Whole workshop –we created short lists of body parts, and then prepended the phrase What maters most is, leaving us with a bunch of declarative statements we’d have to make some sense of: What matters most is a hand. We took 20 minutes for our write — you could do anywhere from 10-20, if you’d like!

Here’s my write in response to this prompt:

What matters most is this blood, 27 years of bleeding, the dark red funk, that iron rush — would it have filled a bathtub yet if we’d left it to its own, this body’s own, devices? Let’s say we squeezed out 27 years of obs and Always pads, wrung out the jeans and skirts and underpants stained, collected the remnants left in toilets or run down the shower drain? If I looked back at my human biology book, I’m sure I could do the math: some number of tablespoons every month multiplied by 12 months by 27 years probably doesn’t equal an Olympic-sized swimming pool but it did equal sheer power once upon a time

For years in my adolescence I was irregular, never knowing when I was going to bleed, couldn’t read any signs, just went from zero to stained my new white painter’s pants damnit, and in the middle of band practice too. I felt inept not being regular, wrong, like I was out of sync with nature, the earth, the moon. Women were supposed to all be connected, in rhythm, at ease with their tides. But here I was, could go a month with no blood, six weeks, then trickle then wham — I didn’t get regular til he put me on the pill at 16.

But let’s pay attention to the wisdom in these bodies — he stayed away when she was bleeding, didn’t want the smell to stain his hands or fingers (or moustache, I’m sorry) and so he would leave her be when she ran rust red into cotton, when she lay dormant with cramps — and because it could happen at any time, it was an excuse at any time. Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters — this was not a dumb body. This body knew wreckage was the only way to survive.

What matters most is the blood pooling, caught and captured, inside the panties of half the women at work or on the bus, the women you pass by on King street, the tidy tourists, the natty hipsters, the fancy Marina girls, all of us walking around clotted and clogged for a week out of every month because we want to pretend like we’re normal, like we’re boys, I mean — boys who don’t bleed. Can you envision this city, these stained sidewalks laced with blood that didn’t pour out of a wound, if women could bleed freely? Go back to all that clean blood — let’s not get into HazMat reality right now, let’s consider a society where women didn’t have to pretend like we weren’t women, where each of us could have our bodies and acknowledge just what was going on in those bodies — if we could make te monthly blood visible, maybe too we make the fibro pain visible, the cramps visible, the not-bleeding visible, the hormones cycling visible — maybe our reality gets pinched back out of the hands of people who would turn it into farce and joke. Maybe all that good red fertilizes our parks, tears open asphalt and concrete, drizzles trails down all kinds of legs and we are ok with our peculiar humanness — we are ok with the truth of our stains, our release, our relinquishing, the deep way our bodies know how to cleanse.

Thank you for the ways you honor what matters most to you, to those you love, even in deep and quite and unspoken ways. Thank you always for your writing and your words.

I (eventually) remember that I’m human

Art makes us human (stencil graffiti)Today I am thinking about how to move forward.  I get up, less nauseous, make my coffee, come into the quiet office, light a candle, write in my notebook for awhile.  The pen moving across the page makes different things happen than fingers moving against keyboard.  my candle’s still lit.  How do I move forward.  One small step: one thing, every day, that reminds me I’m human, while I move amid all this inhuman infrastructure. Water the plants, listen to music made with fingers and breath instead of keystrokes. Rinse the mung beans just sprouting in their small plastic jar. Take one more step. Cover up the bags under my eyes and move out into the world.  Let some of the dark seep through, because it’s thorough: not for pity, but because I am honest.  Right?

What does it mean to be a human? During these intense-triggered times, I sometimes forget: I remember, instead, what it feels like to be outside the human experience, that disconnected, untethered. I talk with my sister and she tells me about energy, about connections among people, about that most unexplainable magic.  When I talk with my sister I (eventually) remember that I’m human.  I remember I have  a heartbeat and blood.  I remember what saved me.

I’ve been reading Andrew Vachss’ last Burke book*, Another Life. Someone asks Burke what saved him, and he says it was his family: not his blood family, of course, since he doesn’t know them, and not the ‘family’ that raised him, as that was the State, as abusive as it wants to be, but his chosen family.

I think about how humans get to choose our family, even our blood, eventually — we get to choose who we let in, who we will grow with and against. We don’t get to choose all that shapes us. We do get to choose who we will acknowledge as family.

Of course, writing helps me move forward, too.  When I thought that question to myself, “what saved you?” — I thought about my sister, and I thought about writing, I thought about curiosity.  How I love so much just to sit with the pen against the paper, getting to see what emerges. And I thought, too, about not being saved.

How to move forward? This poem is helping me with some steps today.  Use it as a prompt: read the poem (aloud, if possible), and then write exactly as you’re drawn to write.  What comes up for you as you read/listen?

Directions

by Connie Wanek

First you’ll come to the end of the freeway.
Then it’s not so much north on Woodland Avenue
as it is a feeling that the pines are taller and weigh more,
and the road, you’ll notice,
is older with faded lines and unmown shoulders.
You’ll see a cemetery on your right
and another later on your left.
Sobered, drive on.
Drive on for miles
if the fields are full of hawkweed and daises.
Sometimes a spotted horse
will gallop along the fence. Sometimes you’ll see
a hawk circling, sometimes a vulture.
You’ll cross the river many times
over smaller and smaller bridges.
You’ll know when you’re close;
people always say they have a sudden sensation
that the horizon, which was always far ahead,
is now directly behind them.
At this point you may want to park
and proceed on foot, or even
on your knees.

*If you don’t know about VachssBurke series, I highly recommend that you check them out — plot-driven crime novels that focus on bad things happening to people who do bad things to kids. Quick, intense reads, wildly satisfying revenge fantasies, engaging if also sometimes aggravating characters…

we’re living the truth of our unique sister-beauty

kitten graffiti -- San Luis Obispo, CAI guess this is when we grow up — when we let our parents go.

It takes our making that release, even if they have already released us.  Even if they, over and over, have opened their bodies, opened their hands and let us tumble out onto the wet earth: still, we have to unknot ourselves from their longings and fears, we have to pull the cords from around our necks, we have to fish the hooks (yes, thank you for that one) out of our shoulders, we have to move forward without them.

What I’m talking about isn’t something I want to deal with metaphorically right now, but I’m not ready not to tell it slant, so I’ll stop.

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Today is my sister’s birthday, and when I tell you that she holds my heart, what I mean is that without her I wouldn’t be breathing. When I say that I hold her heart, it’s hopeful, maybe, or what else — wishful thinking — but a longing to be that big sister.

On her birthday I always wish I lived closer, that we could easily get together for breakfast or lunch, pancakes with a candle burning in the middle of the butter and syrup that we could sing around. She was the deciding reason for me to move to California — so that we could be within driving distance. No more having to travel cross country just to lay my eyes on her face.

Today I’m sad and sick with loss about parents, and at the same time I’m wishing I could go out dancing with my sister: that we could take back some physical space in this world for the safety and joy of our bodies. That we could clear the area around us on the dance floor because we were laughing so hard, moving fast and serious, enjoying the music and safe with each other.  Given where we come from, that’s not a sure thing, that last there — but she keeps on working with me in it: the possibility of safety with each other, the possibility that we could hold each other’s hearts  and not offer them over like a sacrifice to someone else in order to save our own skin — or, maybe worse, in order to save our sister. Because that was the terrible choice we had to live within for years: if you don’t take her apart, she won’t get better.

Now we’re living the opposite of that: now we’re living the truth of our unique sister-beauty.  Now we’re living in the aftermath of battleground and deep scarring, and we are (maybe you can’t see us, but we are ) we are dancing every time we’re in the same room together.  Every time we talk on the phone.  We are dancing.  We are getting free.

For her birthday, I wish my sister time to celebrate her devastatingly beautiful strength, time to honor her brilliant open heart, time to be as held and cared for as she holds and cares for others. I wish for her long stretches of moments when she feels safe in her own skin — when she is safe in her own skin.

What I want to tell you about my sister is that her grace is like fire and her voice is like triumph and loss and morning and we had to walk across each other’s bodies to get ourselves free of hell and now she’s still willing to know me. Now we have stayed in this fight long enough, struggling to love each other and be safe in that love, listening to things to terrible to hear once we got to the other side but still listening, still trusting each other. There are many reasons why we wouldn’t, and yet we do.

This isn’t what I want to talk about on her birthday.  On her birthday I want her to have kitten time and red licorice time and just one moment when, all the way down deep in the thick of her bones, she knows that her body is good and clean and safe and strong and deserves all and only good things: professional massage, organic tastiness, favorite music, everything that feels ok just and right in that moment.

I wish that for you, too, on this day.

you can see the light and dark of us

Six Persimmons, 13th century ink painting by Mu Ch'i

"Six Persimmons," Mu Ch'i (image from nidrayoga.com/)

In my dream, we’re driving out in the country — maybe it’s Maine, maybe it’s here — and we’re with friends, or someone new. We’re showing people where we used to live. It could be backcountry Maine, or Nebraska.  It feels familiar.  Or maybe Fresh! wasn’t there at first, and I point out to a friend, there behind that poster/picture/board sign of a bear (?), we lived a few miles down that road.  She smiles, thinks it’s wonderful.  Then we’re out on that road, and another friend and I are driving up a dirt section, he wants to see something, we’re in a car; Fresh! says, Uh, Guys? like he’s trying to warn us about something, but we’re off, and it’s not til I get to the top of the road that I can see an enormous tornado off in the distance. I shout to my friend, who’s driving, I say Turn around, turn around, turn around, turn around, and yank at him and the car the way you would turn a horse.  We get back down the hill and Fresh! already has a little tornado on him — he’s turning around, keeping it to his back, then gets out a lighter, and puts the flame to the base of the tornado. The flame diminishes it, then it disappears. I feel proud, like, of course he knows what to do when he has a tornado on his back. Everyone is relieved, and we drive back to a big house fast to shutter it up before the enormous tornado gets to us.  We listen to weather reports on the radio, like at home, in NE. The house is a mess, and I have to shower.  Why?  I go in to the shower room, a huge bathroom that has a shower section on one side of a half-wall, with a break in the middle of it to walk through from one side to the other: bathroom side, shower side.  I take off my clothes and shower, then trade out with someone else. She has to shower, too.  I think we might have been washing something off, but I can’t remember.  We smile at each other, friendly, comfortable — not sexy. Then I go down to try and help clean up. Why was there mess everywhere? I have to close the big heavy doors on some of the larger rooms, they’re the double or more sets of doors that you pull out of slots in the wall, inside doors to close off a room from the rest of the house.  The rollers on the doors keep coming out of their tracks, and I can’t get them to close.  One of the rooms has two, then four or more doors to keep it shut. I can’t close it off. As I type this up, I see some metaphor in it.  The kitchen is filled with trash and mess, dirty dishes — is it our mess? I had thought about telling people to board up the windows, so that glass wouldn’t break all over us when the tornado hit, but then I thought it was sort of showing off to say that kind of thing, and anyway, we never boarded up our windows at home during tornado warnings — we just got into a safe place.

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Last night was the Erotic Reading Circle – we had all different kinds of stories, some quite lascivious, some more sensual, some only very subtly erotic or not at all.  If you’re ever thinking that maybe you don’t belong at the ERC because your stories/poems/essays don’t sound like something out of Penthouse Letters, please don’t worry about that!

Today I’ve got my second workshop with the MedEd Writers — then I’ve got to prep for the reading on Friday night!  Do you want to come out and hear some excellent erotic stories, watch lovely burlesque, all in an intimate, West Oakland setting? Send me an email to RSVP and I’ll get you the location & deets!

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These are the things on the wall around my desk, the images and words that sustain me: Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese (yes, go read it right now.  We’ll wait til you come back); a photo of ironwork window covering (taken during a trip to NYC one New Year’s); a birthday card from a friend, received years ago: walk on the wild side * dance to the music of your dreams * learn something new * make mistakes * celebrate the uniqueness of you… ; a card from my dad: Joy in your heart can heal any moment — it has a drawing on the front, the silhouette of a human containing a big red heart and lifted into the stars on, on outstretched orange bat-wings.

There’re photocopies of Julia Cameron’s Basic Principles and Rules of the Road from The Artist’s Way, and Robin Therrien’s list of How to Start a Workshop Using the Amherst Writers & Artists Institute Method (from her Voices from the ‘Hood: How to Start and Sustain a Writing Workshop for Youth at Risk), which includes these lines among the 10:

1. Put your body there

3. Tell them who you are and why you are there. Be radically honest.

8. Admit your mistakes and your fears. Let your participants teach you. Forgive yourself.

9. Go back again. Put your body there again.

10. Open your heart, receive huge treasure, over and over again.

There’s a photo of me and Fresh!, way back in our beginning, when I still had my boy-short hair; he’s got his arms around me and we’re smiling so big at one another. We were dressed for an evening out dancing with the Butch-Femme Socials folks. I was trying so hard to look like a girl; it was early in my moving from butch to femme. Now, when I look at the picture, I can see that I looked like a femmedyke, just fine, but at the time, whenever I looked in the mirror, I thought I looked completely ridiculous, nothing like the wildly-hot (long-haired, of course) feminine thing I envisioned as what femme was supposed to be. Kathleen was in town and took the picture of us — she was patiently documenting the moment when she really just wanted to get out and dance with the San Francisco butches at Slut Night.

There’s a blow up, beneath that photo, of me and my sister on the porch of the house in the country, outside Lincoln. It’s fall: we’re eating apples and I’ve got on a hooded sweatshirt.  The gender of the child I was isn’t too easily determined; my sister’s gender is marked by the skirt or dress she’s got on. I’ve got the apple tight in my right hand, curled up to my body, and my other hand is resting on my left thigh. My sister bites into her apple; she can hardly get her hand around half of it — could she be two in this picture? Her coat is baby blue, the inside of the hood all warm with white fuzz.  She doesn’t have the hood up.  My sweatshirt is dark blue and I’m either talking or in the middle of a bite.  We both look like eating apples is serious labor; my sister’s eyebrows are kind of furrowed; it’s hard work getting her teeth in there. In the picture you can only see the front door of the house that my parent’s were having built — the whole wood frame place was painted avocado green. Maybe this picture was taken right around when the house was finished; or, no, wasn’t it done before my sister was born?  What you can’t see in the picture is the big sloping back yard, or the fact that the little housing development we lived in was surrounded on all sides by wheat fields.  You can’t see the big yellow bus that I rode to kindergarten the next year, you can’t see the basement where we smashed oranges and lemons and grapefruits against the wall, you can’t see all the neighbors’ houses, the kids we learned to be young humans with.  You can see the light and dark of us, her golden fuzzed head, light skin, my slightly darker-all-over self. My dad would have taken the picture — he documented everything but himself.

What else? There’s Hothead Paisan declaring, “Fen Muh Nist,” with her excellent fangs and mohawk. Here’s the card I found with one of my favorite paintings, Six Persimmons by Mu Ch’i, overlaid with the words of Rumi: “But listen to me for one moment / Quit being sad. Hear blessings / Dropping their blossoms / Around you.”

Here’s the yellowed copy of e.e. cummings’ “Since Feeling is First,” that we got from our AP English teacher, senior year. Dang it, I can’t remember that teacher’s name.  He called all his students when he got our scores in after the AP exam; I was so surprised that I received higher than a 3. He said he wasn’t. I’d had no idea that he even knew who I was.

And, too, the card with a unicorn on it that one of my parents sent to me when I was obsessed with unicorns in fifth or sixth grade. there’s an image of a cow that I cut out of a Marin newspaper, when I was dying to move from the city back to the cows — the cow is in silhouette, it’s evening, the cow is walking up a hill, maybe toward dinner. I taped this fortune to the image, right under the cow: “You are headed in the right direction. Trust your instincts.”

And last, there’s the bottom of a box of tea. Celestial Seasonings used to include these great quotes and sayings all over their tea boxes, so you actually wanted to spend time reading the whole thing because it was interesting (which was excellent for people like me, who spent time reading cereal boxes, bottles of salad dressing, anything else with words on it). This one I found back in the early 90s — I forget if it was before or after I broke contact with my family; I think it was before.  I was trying to remember whether or not I could deserve innocence, if it could live anywhere in me.  On the bottom of the box appeared two things. First, a Kahlil Gibran quote, “Keep away from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh, and the greatness which does not bow before children” — I felt Gibran reaching to me, showing me the fallacy of, the feebleness behind, my stepfather’s pronouncements of greatness, of power and strength.

The second thing on the bottom of the box was this conversation:

A quotation from five year old Josh Catlin:

“Mom.”

“Yes?”

“I sing all the time when there’s nobody around but butterflies and maybe a grasshopper.”

“That’s great, Josh. I’ll bet the animals love your singing.”

“They do and they don’t make me ‘barrassed and you know what else?”

“What else?”

“The butterflies dance when I sing.”

What are the words and images you keep around you to keep you grounded in yourself?  Please keep writing.