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writing hands are strong hands (a new workshop begins tonight)

freedom/graffiti calligraphyVery sleepy here at my morning writing desk.  I have a cup of strong decaf brewed with cardamom and a dash of stevia — so no added sugar! I have Groove Salad slowly waking my auditory self, singing me into this Monday morning.  I have a messy desk, receipts to file, notebooks to type up, seeds to plant, and little notes on torn scraps of paper holding topics I want to write about.

A new workshop starts tonight, another group of folks coming together to dive into their creative selves, to make space in their lives for words-in-community, words that get to commingle with other(s’) words, words that feed and are fed upon dreams and synchronicity.

I get nervous at this moment, when the workshop’s just about to begin, when we all don’t know or remember each other yet, when we’re re-finding our way to our inner songs. This sounds a little simplistic maybe.  What I know is, the nervousness is about possibility, about my learning this particular chorus of voices and energies about to come together.

I love this moment, and I slide into ritual to keep me moving forward: write up the syllabus (which just means creating an outline of possible exercises for each of the 8 weeks, loosely associated with some themes that I came up with awhile ago as topics I thought we ought to touch on during workshops, or themes that often come up whether or not I intend/plan for them to: re-rooting, writing the body, fearless words, unspoken desire, and others), prepare the handouts, shop for snacks, shave and cut up the carrots.

(This is too focused, not morning-dreamy enough.  The poems live under your shoes at the sleepiest times (isn’t that what John Fox said, in the poetry he quoted?). I’d love to have an early morning writing workshop, 8am-10 or even 7-8:30, something folks would come to before they went to work, a space to collect with poetry, with dreamsong, with imagination and vivid interpersonal desire, with the sole purpose of haggling with meaning, a precision of tapping the right words, a sleepy-still writing time with others.)

Here’s what happens at the writing workshops: we write and rewrite our own songs and stories; we practice hearing and witnessing one another’s artistry (and, in so doing, we practice bearing witness to our own); we practice deep kindness.  Each of these are revolutionary acts, and when combined, they can be incendiary — the lit match to inflame our transformative desire, our desire for transformation.

What’s important is how folks use the workshops to transform their writing, their sense of themselves as writers/artists –and how we, over and over again, re-learn that we can trust the truth of our own voices.

There’s no reason this should work this way.  We sit in a room together, we put pen to paper alone, we read our new writing. Why should that be a liberatory practice? Why should we be willing to take that risk?

There’s no point here, and that is the point. Publishing is great, getting your work out in front of the world, whether you read it at a mic or have it appear in an anthology: this is important, plus maybe you get $25 or $50 to throw into your piggy bank.

But it’s not the most important thing, I think.  Or maybe not the most important thing for me, as someone who writes. What happens is we keep on gathering in front of our notebooks, creating something new. Risking again, that we can open and touch the mess and viscera, the hard blood, the stuff of loss and want, the trouble of impossible joy. The thing is that we resettle with these 26 letters and then some, and we try to make magic.

And what happens, in the middle of every workshop — when folks lift their heads from their writing, they tuck their pens behind their ears or keep clicking the ballpoint in and out, when we take a deep breath and say: OK. Who would like to read? — magic does happen. And it’s the simplest, most profound kind of magic: 1) someone has been willing (again! magic!) to risk finding the words to put to a truth that there are never enough words for, and 2) others receive that truth with kind eyes and strong hands (because, I’ll tell you, writing hands are strong hands). This is liberatory stuff: and not just for the writer. Witnessing is a difficult, necessary job. We write with the idea that there is a listener.  We speak to the page as though it has ears. When there are ears, that’s a whole new game.

And then this: in the workshop, we don’t analyze the writer, we don’t pathologize the content. We praise the metaphor, the maybe untended use of rhyme, we notice the repetition, the use of detail, the descriptions. We describe what was strong for us about the writing, and those who came into the room believing that they could not write have a little more weight on the other side of the scale, re-tipping our understanding of ourselves toward ‘creative being.’ Those who came into the room believing they did not have the mettle to tell a particular story, they start to learn different.

But there’s more that I want to say about witnessing: witnessing is work.  It requires attention, intention. In the workshops, we are sometimes witness to stories that have never before been spoken.  We are sometimes witness to the awful, stunning details of trauma: we feel like we’re the birds who’ve slammed into a pane of glass. But we, every time someone reads, are witness to a brand new thing. Every time. And that is a place of extraordinary honor.

We were taught, maybe in school, maybe from something we read, maybe elsewhere, that we aren’t supposed to share first drafts — that they’re not worthy of a hearing.  I don’t believe that.  First drafts–even the stuff at the workshops that are the embryos of first drafts–these have a breath and a heartbeat and a thrumming energy. When we’re willing to share these with others, we begin to hear where we end and the poem, the writing, takes off on its own. We begin to hear where our magic lies. (And maybe I mean that in both ways.) We practice a deep trust. And our writing grows.

Something tender and tenuous that grows among the writers in every workshop — we learn the sorts of things that others notice, we learn, then, how to incorporate those things into our writing, if we want.  We learn from each other’s witnessing, from what others remember and mention. Our writing grows under this care and feeding.

There are those who’d call this sort of writing space indulgent. I say, especially for survivors of trauma (and how many of us aren’t?), we get to indulge (if by that you mean, have treated kindly and with respect) the parts of us that haven’t yet been able to raise their natty, knotty voices.

In the workshops, we get to indulge the parts of our creative selves that went underground.  Of course, we were/are endlessly creative in our survival — because survival is a creative act. Every decision we made, every new facet to our personality grown and honed to protect us: creative. Every yes yanked from our lips, every no danced around, every strategizing moment: creative.

Jane Hirschfield said, at the Healing Art of Writing conference, that she thinks agency is the antidote to depression. “When you are being creative, you are free,” she said.

Yes, exactly. And being free, in community, with others enacting the same risky freedom: that’s liberatory practice. That’s freedom in action.

A new workshop begins tonight. I’ll be there with poems and exercises, tea and snacks and notebooks and pens, ready for the revolution (yours, my own, yes: ours), again and again and again.

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Stewardship: a whole new possibility

this is a bit from my Writing Ourselves Whole newsletter for November:

Trauma Stewardship book coverLast month, I attended a day-long training on Trauma Stewardship, with Laura van Dernoot Lipsky (this training was hosted by the Domestic Violence Coalition, CUAV and the Asian Women’s Shelter — thank you so much!). Here’s what I want to tell you: there’s not anyone I know who wouldn’t benefit from the ideas and the possibility that Laura (and her coauthor Connie Burke) offer in this training, and the corresponding book. Although it’s written primarily with those who work with survivors of trauma in mind, what I know is that all of the communities I participate in are traumatized right now, and so nearly all of us are going to experience trauma exposure response — which means we could be doing trauma stewardship.

As someone who has come up with every reason there is not to take care of myself (too busy, too guilty, too tired, not as bad off as others, etc — you know these, don’t you?), I’ve been in need of a change for at least a year (some might say longer), and couldn’t figure out how to make space in my life for self-care. And often, I couldn’t honestly believe that I deserved it.

In her introduction, Laura says this about the book (Trauma Stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others), and about the ideas of trauma Stewardship as a different way to walk with the work we’re doing in this world:

“This book is a navigational tool for remembering that we have choices at every step of our lives; we are choosing our own path. We can make a difference without suffering; we can do meaningful work in a way that works for us and for those we serve. We can enjoy the world and set it straight. Taking care of ourselves while taking care of others allows us to contribute to our societies with such impact that we will leave a legacy informed by our deepest wisdom and greatest gifts instead of burdened with our struggles and despair.”

Laura’s concept of Trauma Stewardship has turned a lot around for me. With deep and loving kindness, and fierce compassion, she called all of us out in that room at the Women’s Building: if your work in the world isn’t including time to replenish, and if you are not coming to the work from a place of powerful and rooted centeredness and choice, then your work is going to be unsustainable, and you’re going to end up not recognizing yourself in the mirror.

I want to write more about what’s happened for me, the changes I have started making in and for my life and work since this training, but for now, I absolutely encourage you to visit her website and buy this book — share it with your organizations and communities and friends. We are all stewards for one another right now, and we need to be as kind and gentle with ourselves as we can be during this strong and gorgeous and difficult life.

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Power of Words 2009 – Early Bird Deadline Extended!

From the Conference website: http://tlanetwork.org/conference/

TLA logo The Power of Words:
Liberation, Transformation & Celebration Through the Spoken, Written & Sung Word

September 4-7, 2009 at Goddard College, Plainfield, VT

Explore how we can use our words — written, spoken or sung — to make community, deepen healing, witness one another, wake ourselves up, and foster empowerment and transformation. Organized by the Transformative Language Network, and founded by Goddard College, this conference features experiential workshops on a wide range of the expressive language arts and right livelihood, performances, open readings, and celebrations. Make community with others who share your passion. Keynote presenters for the 2009 conference include:

Kayhan Irani, performer of the Theatre of the Oppressed and creator of Artivista, an organization that combines art and activism as a form of political expression and engagement

John Fox, poet, author, poetry therapist, and founder of Poetic Medicine, and author of Poetic Medicine and Finding What You Didn’t Lose.

Lewis Mehl Medrona, author of Coyote Medicine, Native American physician and psychiatrist and professor of family psychiatry who calls himself a post-modern, semi-urban neo-shaman.

Dovie Thomason, award-winning Native American storyteller, recording artist and author

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, founder of Transformative Languages Arts, and award-winning author of several books including Write Where You Are and Lot’s Wife, who will be debuting her memoir, The Sky Begins at Your Feet.

Sherry Reiter, poetry therapy pioneer and author of Writing Away the Demons: Stories of Creative Coping Through Transformative Writing will present a workshop with her co-authors.

Callid Keefe & Kristina Perry, facilitators-in-residence and writers on Theopoetics and the Quaker meeting tradition.

Terry Hauptman, artist-in-residence, painter and poet, and author of On Hearing Thunder, Rattle, and Masquerading in Clover.

This year, too, there will be tracks focusing on Narrative Medicine, Right Livelihood, and Social Change.

Visit http://tlanetwork.org/conference/ for more information and to register!

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ERC: something else that gives me hope!

Last night was the first Erotic Reading Circle of 2009. We had a gorgeous gathering of writers, readers & listeners at the Center for Sex and Culture, some ERC regulars, some newbies, some in-between! The writing was varied and hot, layered and good and challenging and fun. Thank you, writers!

I felt last night the joy about people coming in to a roomful of strangers and — god!– reading their erotica, their secret bright desires, their difficult gorgeous art — people *so* put themselves on the line. It’s beautiful in ways I still struggle for words to describe: words like hopefulness and bravery.

This is a risk every time and people take it. They take that risk. We do. And so that’s what’s giving me hope right now — that risk has bravery in it, honest, self-confidence and shaking hands, a faith in art and craft and a passion for language and play, a willingness to listen and be heard. These things are what we need right now to keep this world changing, and so I am grateful!

Next ERC is on Feb 25 — all are welcome, even if you just want to come on down and listen!

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Podcast Answers, Day 10 – What’s giving you hope?

Back in November, I committed to posting longer, more well-thought-out answers to the questions that Britt Bravo posed to me during our Arts and Healing Network podcast conversation. Here’s my answer for day 10!

10. What gives you hope right now?

A kuffiya 'ribbon' in solidarity with Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon; image from http://www.reziststicker.com/stickers.htm This has been a hard question for me to answer. I’ve been slipping between feeling very hopeful and deeply hopeless and heartsick – there are beautiful moments and possibilities and still horrors inflicted in every moment and how can we talk about hope except that without even the mention, the word, I think we lose everything.

Every week, the sort of writing *and* the sort of communal engagement and solidarity manifested at the writing workshops gives me hope that we can create the space we need for deep change and amazingly honest openness in our worlds/lives —

And then there are other places of hope for me:
1. Resistance to empire and other hierarchies of power.
2. Lemon squeezed into water.
3. Hot coffee in the morning.
4. The way some folks are willing to make eye contact with strangers while walking through downtown San Francisco on a weekday morning.
5. The cracking open and brilliance of emotion and voice that happens in the writing workshops; the deep open-hearted kindness of folks’ responses to one another; the joy we receive in recognizing the artists in each other, and having recognized the artists in ourselves.
6. (The very possibility of) Laughing with my lover after some difficult weeks.
7. My sister. just her.
8. The way friends can reach out across years and miles and difference and still create a net for me to fall into, even when I think I don’t deserve it.
9. The fact that our local farmer’s markets are still going strong.
10. All the folks who are writing and reading. Everyone telling their stories everywhere. I mean it.

There’s more, and less, but this is my count for now.

What’s giving you hope right now? I mean, in this minute?

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Podcast Answers – Day 6: How do the workshops impact survivors?

A couple weeks ago, I committed to posting longer, more well-thought-out answers to the questions that Britt Bravo posed to me during our Arts and Healing Network podcast conversation. Here’s my answer for day six!

6. What has been the impact of the workshops for survivors of sexual abuse?

metal sculpture of phoenix rising from the ashes
I love this question, and it’s a challenge for me to answer: while I can say what’s been my experience, I can talk about what I think happens for some folks sometimes, but I can’t speak for all the survivors I’ve written with. So I’m going to say some things I think about the workshops can impact or have impacted folks who’ve participated (myself included), but I’d love to hear your thoughts, too!

(Note: there’s a little bit of sexual language in this post — just fyi!)


We have our bodies. We have our hands and feet thighs legs arms eyes noses breasts mouths bellies chests butts foreheads fingers lips toes and yes genitals yes cunts and cocks yes they always are of us. Through [this] writing, I open to the world around me. I walk around heavily awake, I smile more amply, I touch the cats on the ledge with my eyes. I am seen and I see. I am witnessed. I am heard. I am differently present. This is the opposite of dissociation. This is the practice of embodiment.


We can change the world this way, through writing deeply and openly—I mean, with this and other practices of knowing and living ourselves into the vast elemental of art. Don’t ever think that our work, the very practice of writing—the very fact of taking the time to sit down with one’s own thoughts, committing them to paper, doing so in community –is not revolutionary. We undermine and examine the old teachings. We take the old language and turn it inside out. We name our hidden truths. We true our hidden names. We crack through the surface of the advertised world and take hold of the reins of our lives. As long as we keep on writing and knowing each other as constantly changing peers in this process, as long as we are free to tell ourselves and our stories however we choose, as long as we play in the memory and myth of the thickness of metaphoric language, as long as we climb into other writers who speak to us and experience their words viscous with reality (whether those words are published in a collection or read aloud in a writing group), we will walk ourselves, together, into freedom.

stones talk: trust, strength, focus Remember the guidelines of the AWA method writing workshops (as developed by Pat Schneider in her book Writing Alone and With Others):
1) Confidentiality: everything shared here stays here;
2) Exercises are suggestions;
3) Reading aloud is optional;
4) Feedback is positive and treats all new writing as fiction.

We build trust in a space in which we hold ourselves and each other in confidence. Writers have the structure and possibility of exercises offered by someone else, and the freedom of interpretation and play. We can then choose to “perform” (read aloud) our new writing, or not. If and when we choose to share what we’ve written, we know we will receive a warm and strong hearing that focuses on the artistry of our words, our language, our imagery. We ourselves aren’t deconstructed, analyzed or pathologized.

 Many writers in these workshops seem to “break open” right from the beginning. And that power is magnificent. We do it because we can and we are ready. We have a kind of “public performance space” that is also private, confidential. The writing room becomes our stage and our quiet bed. We have the assurance of privacy, which allows for the audacity, bravery, and cojones of recital. We come and write because we know someone will be there to hear us, and that we will be able to construct ourselves in the sight of others and yet not be held or tethered to any one permutation of ourselves. Finally, it’s out in the open, and other people are talking about it. No longer do we as individual (so-called) victims have to remain silent: we have a place where we can receive others’ stories, experiences, recovery, struggle, contradiction while offering our own.

In this space, no one has any authority over another in the realm of experience. How I receive a piece of writing is how I receive it, and how you experience it is how you experience it. What we hear and like might be similar or disparate, but any disconnect in our experiences/hearings does not render one or the other more right or better or more important. Also, each person’s interpretation of an exercise is correct. butterfly heart

For survivors, those of us–so many of us, in so many different ways–trained into wrongness, trained into silence, trained into the invisibility of our language: when I say that the workshops are “transformative,” I mean that we create ourselves a space in which to alter how we have come to know ourselves through words. When we tell newly-re-framed stories and we are heard… how can that not empower and open the heart?

This can take awhile to sink in for writers in the workshops. But you know how it is: Over time, and through hard and serious risk, each person learned the primacy and power of their words, their experience, their interpretation, their artistry. It’s revolution. It’s gorgeous.


Now, it’s y’all’s turn: What about for you? Have you participated in this or another AWA-method workshop? What’s been your experience about how survivors can be impacted by this work?

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Metaphysical Fitness — Classes start soon!

Jen’s Note: Sista Nau*T is my dear friend and compatriot in the work of transformation & healing — she’s deeply invested in the work of helping us remember the importance of our bodies and connect back into these selves we sometimes forget to take such good care of:


Doshe Healing Arts in collaboration with Bushmama Productions present:
Metaphysical Fitness Training

Come explore practical solutions for common obstacles to health and wellness.
Learn to work out anytime, anywhere engaging in small daily activities that have profound life long impacts.

Classes begin Aug. 2, 2008 at 10a
We offer the class at a sliding scale $10-$25 suggested donations NTAFLOF
Register now, space is limited.

For more information please visit our website
http://web.mac.com/sisnaut/iWeb/Doshe%20Healing%20Arts/Contact%20Us.html

Peace, Love, Guidance, Protection and Prosperity in Abundance,
Sis. Nau~T
Doshe Healing Arts
Founder and Executive Director

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Ending Child Sexual Abuse within 5 Generations

I am so sad that I missed the “Generations of Change” event honoring Staci Hanes last week — Staci Hanes is the woman who began Generation 5, an organization devoted to ending childhood sexual abuse within 5 generations, through community education, public action, and survivor leadership. Join their mailing list, throw a house party, participate in a training and help out where you can!

http://www.generationfive.org/

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The Revolution and the possibilities of beauty

cover of "The Revolution Will Not Be Funded; Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial ComplexI’m reading The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the non-profit industrial complex (edited by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence), and I am feeling hopeful. It’s so scary to imagine being truly non-competitive, remembering that I am a part of a movement and that I am not alone, not reinventing the wheel, that there are all these communities, like circles of friends – and sometimes like cliques – that I am a part of: anti-violence movements, anti-rape movements, movements challenging sexual violence, power of words movements, sex educators, pornographers, writers, racial justice activists, movements questioning abuses of power and hierarchy, queers, and anti-conformity communities…

I have all this energy and the coffee is making me impatient with the movement and slowness of my hands, this physical body. So, while reading, I am also thinking about how to do this work. I don’t feel it’s necessary to shape my mission to feed funders’ language requirements – I have just seen that so many times, seen people lose jobs and others lose services/communities/programs because of an ostensibly-surprising loss of funding. I see organizations losing track of who they’re there for – not funders, right? Aren’t our non-profits supposed to be in the service of/to the people?

Of course, this has changed radically, this idea that all non-profit organizations exist to serve the people, rather than those foundations paying the bills. So what do we do, we organizers and activists and social change workers who want to somehow keep a roof over our heads while also devoting our lives to doing the work we believe in, to changing our communities, to engagement with others doing the same?

I believe in the power of words to save us and to transform us – and I believe that individual transformation is an important and necessary ingredient of larger social change. I believe in the mantras of One at a Time and that real, lasting change is slow steady, persistent change: like practice. Change isn’t a one-time thing. It’s an every-day, collaborative and individual (both) bit of consistency. I believe that change is relationship-based, that change happens through connection and through the reality of hearts recognizing each other, no matter how different we thought we were on all of our various surfaces.

We don’t have to do what everyone – i.e., the “mainstream” – says we have to do to survive; we can create new possibilities through our words, through our sharing, which create fissures inside of and alongside the systems that have shaped and snared us. My stepfather (and perpetrator) was very fond of the spaces in-between. He believed in shiny surfaces and lies, taught me to look critically at what hides in plain view. This was unfortunate for him. We saw him hiding there because he revealed himself to us (ah, the way entitlement eventually hangs itself!), and we held him to account (to some extent, anyway).

I am not someone who *believes* too much in shiny things. Now, shiny and polished are nice, but I recognize that they’re fronts.

I do not believe in hiding in plain view. I believe in visibility. I also believe in using what’s available and loving all the spaces we exist within: that is, looking at our whole world and admiring not just the storefront, but also the back alley and the unweeded side yard, and the spots that need paint and repair. I like seeing the real, the spaces still dirty, the smudged mascara, the pressed shirt with a stain, broken fingernails, chipped teeth – the broad possibilities of beauty.