Tag Archives: stories

off to see the wizard

Painting of a log cabin in the woods, beech trees in the foreground; the house has a steep, peaked roof and stands up on chicken legsGood morning, good morning.

On my screen is Baba Yaga, going off on an adventure in her cup, hair flying wild, broom in hand. Her house stands up on chicken legs. It’s just right for this day that I’m getting for my own adventure.

This morning, though, I am sick and scared, and even though I’m exited, there’s part of me that just wants to stay home, not do something new, stay where I know, with what I love and what’s familiar and good, stay with my pup and the view of the water and the trees and the bay. It’s like a wall inside me, this fear, something stubborn and seemingly immovable.

It’s scary, going to new places, doing new things, trusting: so much trusting. Let that be ok, I try and remember to whisper to the inside parts. Let yourself be the person you are: worried, careful, wanting to take care. Let yourself take care. Scrub the places that are breaking out. Scrub the safe zones. Uncover what’s ready to be risked now.

When you run up against the wall, you have options. you can sing,you can bleed, you can pound, you can cry, you can try and climb. sometimes the wall feels like it’s going to be there forever, sometimes you can’t imagine yourself not sitting up against it every morning, every day, every night. sometimes you look up to watch the birds build their nests on top. Sometimes you turn back, walk away. You forget about climbing. This is and is not a metaphor. You know the walls I mean.

This morning as I was doing my stretches, waiting for the teakettle to boil, I stood in a dark room and looked out at the thick morning fog. The lights twinkled on, off, on again as the clouds moved over the city. Then I caught a glimpse of something behind me, froze inside, turned to look in spite of myself — but it wasn’t him. He wasn’t there. It’s just and old wall, a memory, a forgetfulness and a remembering, a fear. I watch for him sitting on the couch, waiting in the dark for me. He probably didn’t imagine, all those years ago in New Hampshire — when he sat in my apartment in the dark waiting for me to come back home — that, more than twenty years later now, I’d still catch glimpses of how afraid I was that day, glimpses of his ghost, his threats.

How to explain an old fear like this that lingers in the peripheral vision, that isn’t even him anymore, but some embedded bit in my psyche that says keep to what you know, don’t go out there galavanting. Stay here. Be where you’re supposed to be. Be what we know, what we’re familiar with. Be safe. Don’t risk, don’t change.

It would be interesting to pay a different kind of attention to this, to learn whether there are times that I’m more likely to see him sitting there in the dark, waiting for me. Times I am more afraid, times my psyche sends up more flares in the flavor, in the shape, of his shadow, his echo, there on the couch, waiting for me in the dark. it’s an old message: You have something to be afraid of. You aren’t safe. You should stay vigilant, you should not relax. When I come home at night, alone, and catch that fear, I have to check all the closets, slam open the shower curtain (quickly — so it startles him if he’s hiding there), turn on the lights in every room. Still, he’s not there. He’s not there, Jen. He’s not there.

And he wasn’t there this morning. It’s a presence in me, though.

Sometimes the wall seems like it’s still there, in the body, in the heart. sometimes it feels like a forever thing. The wall obstructing your view, obstructing the future, obstructing your possibilities. Other times the wall is gone, and you are free.

It has its uses, the wall. It can be a friend, if I let it. If I look into the fear and ask it what it wants to tell me, if I don’t just berate myself for being stupid and afraid, or steep into self pity. I don’t mean never doing any of these other things — but not only doing them. If I let myself notice that fear, hold it in my hands, maybe even comfort it, comfort the parts that are afraid, the me that is afraid, the me that wants what’s known, that is tired of risking. Why do we have to do the scary thing? it asks. Don’t you know our show is on, and there’s popcorn you can make, and we can pull the curtains and make a safe cave and be here all day until all the bad things go away outside?

I do know that, I tell it, me, her, that scared self, the old just wanting things to be ok. And another day we’re going to do that. But today we;’re going to get on an airplane and go to a new place.

She wants to stay home cuddled with the dog. I tell her the dog is gong to be with a good friend and is safe and in good hands and will get to play a lot and even have her ball in the house like she doesn’t get to do when we’re home. We know she’s going to be ok. We both still cry a little, though, me and that girl inside, the scared one.

Underneath the scared one is the adventurer, the fearless curiosity, the place that ignores the wall, or just sees it as something to get to figure out how to get over. Come on, it’s time to go, she says to us. She’s tired of our weeping. She has backpack, hiking shoes, a walking stick, her hair in long braids down her back. She has her hand out for me to take. She wants to go out with Baba Yaga. She’s not afraid of the chicken legs, and wants to know how the old mother can get that cup to fly.

So we’re doing something different today, all the old places and times and selves that live in me, all the trauma history and memory and the adventurous girl and the tomboy and the girl in the twirly skirt who just wanted to be pretty. We carry our fear with us and our curiosity, the thing that has kept us alive all these years (maybe both have kept us alive, and finding a balance between them) — what is going to come next? The old stories can help carry us through, if we let them, show us all the ways we know how to be safe, to survive, and to risk everything we have for change. We’re off to see the Wizard, with our brains and our heart and our courage and our home always with us, always already inside, and out there for us to discover, too, over and over again.

Thank you for the ways you are easy with the walls you’re still living with, and easy with yourself when they flare up before you. Thank you for the ways you let yourself move around them, over, through, and the ways you lean against them sometimes, too, resting your head against concrete or brick, tears on your cheeks. Thank you for all the ways you use to get over. Thank you for your words.

(A note! While I’m away I probably won’t blog much, but I’ve scheduled a handful of posts to share excepts from the book (coming next month!) — I’m excited to hear your thoughts.)

justifying what we love

Hello, you brilliance you. How is this still-early day of the year finding you? How is your writing today? How is your heart? What do you want to hear about? What are you afraid of or curious about or reaching for this year? What creative or healing intentions have you set for 2014?

At the first Dive Deep meeting on Sunday, we laid out our intentions for our six months’ work together — folks are wanting to complete first or final drafts, generate new stories, prepare manuscripts for submission, reengage in daily writing practices. I found it difficult to choose one project to focus on — I’ve got several asking for my attention at the moment — but decided to make my novel the project I’d bring to Dive Deep for accountability and how do I even say this? My struggle around the novel is that it’s fiction, it’s a very long work, and for me to really be in it means stepping fully outside of my other work for a couple of hours at a time at least. The prompt I brought for us to write to at the beginning of the meeting was, “Why this project, why now?” Why do you need this book or story or practice? Why are you the one to write it? Why should it happen now?

I can answer those questions easily for all of my other projects — they’re related to Writing Ourselves Whole, they’re nonficiton projects, they are aimed specifically at helping others in their own creative practices: I can justify my time on them. It’s not frivolous for me to work on the nonficiton book about writing practice as transformation for survivors of trauma, or the collection of stories from the erotic reading circle (that is so very very overdue). But working on fiction? How is that helping the revolution? And (more immediately), how is that helping to pay the rent? How is that getting food on the table?

How is spending my time writing a made-up story worthwhile?

If anyone else in my life asked that question, I would just about hop out of my chair with all the thousand responses that arose in me. I would invite them to name all the works of fiction that have sustained them during times of difficulty or struggle, characters that helped them to feel less alone, stories that helped them to see the world in a new way or learn a new truth. Stories are what we have to help us make sense of ourselves, our lives, and our possibility. Each new story offers a new possibility into the world — and it can be a constructive possibility or a destructive one. Stories can teach us to be empathetic with others. It gives someone hope, or company, can undermine conventional wisdom, can remind us that this whole thing called living is wholly absurd and gorgeous.

Author Brad Meltzer says, in post entitled “Does Fiction Matter,”

…that’s why books get banned. That’s why they ban Maya Angelou and Judy Blume and Mark Twain. Because stories change us.

And the writing itself changes those of us who write, too, of course — reshapes our knowing, recalibrates our insides, heals us when we write about our difficult experiences (whether fictionally or not) and can help us even when we write about characters we invent out of whole cloth.

The books and stories that have been my closest companions through this life have nearly all been fictional. I have looked to the characters to help me understand how to survive, how to be in relationship with others, how to express and tangle with desire, how to make change, how to live.

Stories matter and impact all who hear them, be they “true” or “fiction.” We know that, right? I take a deep breath — no matter how many times I say it, it seems I still need reminding myself.

So, back to that Dive Deep meeting on Sunday: I committed to return attention to my novel, and work with her at least two hours per week. I haven’t had my novel date yet this week; there were emails to respond to, morning pages to struggle through, this post to write, an essay for another book to work on … there’s always a reason to put the heart work last on the to-do list.

Of course, if a workshop participant came to me with all those Very Important and Good Reasons that they couldn’t get to the work they say they love, I would direct them to this poem from Tony Hoagland, and this reminder from Natalie Goldberg — in order to allow our words to emerge, we have to make room for what doesn’t usually appear on our to-do lists. We have to write “novel” in our datebooks and then keep that writing date. We have to clear out room in the middle of all that Reasonable, Rational, Have-To, and Should that constantly clutters up the living room floor.

What are your creative intentions for 2014? What irrational writing project wants some of your attention? What space can you make on your calendar for the necessary work of creative life– invention and fantasy; naps; conversations with dogs and birds and bare winter branches?

Thanks to you for the ways you have allowed fiction into your heart and bloodstream, for the ways you both create and welcome stories that reshape and reconsider and recreate possibility.

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.

thoughts for a Monday

graffiti of stars painted on a brick wall; the painting also shows the silhouette of a person holding a spray can, creating the art.Something from this weekend:

Living on the edge means recognizing those places and experiences that do not offer me easy answers, those fierce edges of life where things are not as clear-cut as I hope for them to be. There is beauty in the border spaces, those places of ambiguity and mystery.

– Border Spaces, by Christine Valters Paintner

Here is another:

The Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri says that “In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted — knowingly or unknowingly — in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.”

– The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative, by Thomas King.

One more:

One time, twice, once in awhile, I get it right. Once in a while, I can make the world I know real on the page. I can make the women and men I love breathe out loud in an empty room, the dreams I dare not speak shape up in the smoky darkness of other people’s imaginations. Writing these stories is the only way I know to make sure of my ongoing decision to live, to set moment to moment a small piece of stubbornness against an ocean of ignorance and obliteration.

– Trash, Dorothy Allison

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Why are you writing this morning? Give yourself 10 minutes to start your week out with words: what are the stories that need telling from last week, from this weekend, from your dreams? You might also write from any response you have to the image above, to one or more of this morning’s quotes: follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go. Begin this week with your words!

Thank you for the brilliance (sometimes quiet, sometimes loud) of your resilience and your resistance. Thank you for all the ways you grow and stretch, for your willingness to risk growing and stretching. Thank you for your words.

story & cognitive dissonance

poster graffiti -- a padlock with the words, 'You are the key'The words are quiet in me right now. Lots of possibility pushing its way around toward manifesting, which means commitment, which means change.

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The foghorns are lowing all around us; blue sky above but the Golden Gate is thick and grey. Did you see any fireworks last night? From the little church that sits above our apt building, we could see some from Sausalito as well as the ones over in San Francisco. Sophie wasn’t sure what to do with the loud noises, with the strange noisy mechanical birds that were flying low overhead. Still, though, she was more interested in the dog that another family had brought up with them.

It’s hard for me to take fireworks uncritically anymore — the fact that they’re meant to represent bomb explosions lives in me, and I think about the people who don’t celebrate such explosions, who live in terror of those particular noises. I have never had to experience that terror, which is a tremendous privilege. And so it’s with cognitive dissonance that I watch any fireworks display. Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve had lots of experience with cognitive dissonance (as have most Americans, I would hazard, and certainly all survivors of trauma), and so it doesn’t throw me completely: I can appreciate some of the beauty and color, the pyrotechnic work. What sort of study does a person have to undertake to be able to create a firework that explodes into the shape of a heart, or a smiley face?

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Here’s something I wrote last Friday:

What are the stories that we as a society tell ourselves and each other about sexual violence, how we build and undermine the myths around where rape and incest come from? As a culture, we say we don’t support incest, that we don’t support child sexual abuse — don’t condone it. How do we, as a culture, walk with that cognitive dissonance, when we know how many people are sexually violated every day? How do we  story that wreckage for ourselves — that our society says it cares for us and wants to protect the children and then turns not a blind eye but a wide open and indifferent eye to the number of children raped in their homes every day.

We give a privileged position in our government and nonprofit industrial complex to an institution like the Catholic Church, which appears to have child sexual abuse integrated into its very fabric, into its institutional structure. How do we reconcile this?

How much storying is layered around these facts, these truths, so that people do not question? What are the stories that cause lies, what are the stories that run us aground, away from the facts? Why do we listen to and integrate some stories and not others?

And how do we, as survivors, as people who have experienced the underside of society’s stories, make sense of our own experience? If one in three women is sexually abused or assaulted in her lifetime and one in six boys/men, can there be anyone in this country not personally affected by sexual violence? Why do we keep pretending like it’s not all around us? Who do we keep believing the stories that it’s about sick or disturbed individuals, that it’s not institutional, that it’s not societal practice?

What are the stories of rape and incest that we as a society prefer, both fiction and nonfiction?  We like the ‘true crime’ narratives, the one-at-a-time bad-men-on-parade, the stories of women who triumph, who “move from victim to suvivor, from survivor to thriver!”

What about the stories that show us that this isn’t an issue of badly-behaving individuals? What about the stories of women and men who don’t triumph? What about the stories of survivors who lie, who behave “badly” themselves?

The case against the former head of the IMF is falling apart because the woman who he assaulted bight also be a liar — she might not only associate with honest people. The only people who can be raped, by law, are the unflawed one– only the honest ones, the inhuman ones. Whether or not this woman, in this case, was raped, the fact is that now we’re publicly tarnishing her character. That’s what we do with rape victims, the very people our criminal justice system, out of the same mouth, will say it wants to protect. Maybe this woman came to the country under false pretenses. Does this mean she can’t be assaulted? Maybe after she was assaulted she found a way to grab for some power herself. Does this mean she couldn’t have been raped?

Very possibly, yes, according to the laws of this country, which present themselves as putting women and children first.  First in the firing line, maybe. The trouble with using legal means to undermine or eradicate sexual violence is playing out on an international scale:  1) it only happens in the aftermath (legal ramifications don’t prevent the rape in the first place); 2) it requires there to have been a theft, and thus an unflawed landscape/crime scene — the law is primarily focused on protecting property. Rape laws are no different — if what was stolen wasn’t of high value, the crime isn’t so bad. The victim is the property, and is always on trial. We know all this already.

We need to change the story about rape and sexual violence. That’s how we change a culture, a cultural practice — we change the story. We change the stories that people tell their children, that men and women share among one another, that police officers listen for, even. What is the current story about rape, about incest — what’s the story that we can hear? What’s the one that we can’t hear yet? (I’m grateful to Ken Plummer’s Telling Sexual Stories for introducing me to this layer of engagement with stories.)

What’s the story about women’s bodies, children’s bodies, weaker bodies being always accessible to more powerful men and women? What’s the story about class, about power and violence? What are the stories that police tell in court, that rape crisis centers tell their funders, that survivors tell in order to be believed? What are the stories they don’t tell?

How do we learn how we’re supposed to react to rape, once it happens to us? (Which, many of us come to understand, it inevitably will — what stories circulate to ensure that? And what about those of us for whom that’s not true?) How do we change the story about children’s power, women’s power, queerfolks’ power, men’s power? About innocence as something that can be stolen (and thus is property), about violence as power, as good, about the ability to take and do violence as a mark of what — of power? Something to be striven for?

What stories can we unearth, unbury — no, what stories can we keep on telling and louder (these are not hidden stories, they are un-listened-to stories) that undermine the dominant narrative, the easier-to-live-with idea that rape happens because this one guy was a drunk or evil?

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Here’s a write: it’s just for you. This is about stepping out of that cognitive dissonance, and telling our own whole truth. What story aren’t you telling, because you think/know folks’ won’t understand it, won’t listen, won’t hear it right? What piece of your story do you keep on lockdown? What about a part of your character’s story? Take 15 minutes, or 20; go to a quiet place (in real life and/or in you, but definitely in you), and bring your tea or coffee. Write it. Hold it there on the page. Just because it can’t be heard and understood yet doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary.

Thank you for the ways you can hold complexity in others, how you work to be present with your own contradictions and complications: they’re all gorgeous, just like you. Thank you for your wisdom, your honesty, your lies, your words.

let the body do its work

graffiti of a hand facing out toward the viewer, one finger touching a small skateboard; flowers drawn, tattoos?, at the wristGood morning — wow, is it a Monday. How’s yours going so far?

Here’s a story: Yesterday, I spent a bit of time helping my friend, Alex, get ready to move. I don’t like this part of the story, because I don’t want her to move. She’s giving away a bunch of stuff, and I snagged a small bookshelf, a mug, a bag of things from the fridge, a couple of pet carriers, a cast iron cauldron. Everything fit into the car–snug, but still–and we got it all home. I gave Alex a long hug and said See you later (not Goodbye).

When I was taking the bookshelf out of the backseat, I got a serious splinter deep in the third finger of my right hand. Upstairs, in the house, I fussed over the splinter for a long while — I squeezed at it, got out the tweezers and tried to dig out the wood; the Mr. went and got a needle and tried to pull it out, but that didn’t work either. I soaked it in warm water, then tried everything again, but it was just in too deep. So I went to bed, still with splinter, invader, in my hand. I thought about letting the body do its work.

This morning, when I woke up, the area around the splinter was red and aching; I washed it and cleaned it, then started to do my morning writing. After a bit, I squeezed the splinter, and the wood pushed–easy, slick– out of the wound. My body had already started the process of expelling this foreign object, this invasion, this unwelcome thing. I barely had to do anything, but got the tweezers anyway, and took out the wood.

This feels like a metaphor, in and around the matter-of-facts. I’m thinking about old ways of thinking, behaviors, even trigger responses that are manifestations of this exact physiological response: my body doing what it’s built to do, without any real intervention from me. What happens when I step back, let the body do her work? Trust the body to do her work?

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ETA: Katrina, in her comment to this post, shared the following fantastic quote from Ranier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:

“If there is anything morbid in your processes, just remember that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself of foreign matter; so one must just help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and break out with it, for that is its progress. In you, dear mr. kappus, so much is now happening; you must be patient as a sick man and confident as a convalescent; for perhaps you are both. and more: you are the doctor, too, who has to watch over himself. but there are in every illness many days when the doctor can do nothing by wait. and this it is that you, insofar as you are your own doctor, must now above all do.”

Yes yes yes.

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Want to use it as a prompt? What invasions have your body, your psyche, encircled in a coating that protects you from them, and prepared to expel? What happens when you or your characters trust your/their bodies?

Take this wherever you want to; follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

Thank you thank you, on this Monday morning. Thank you for your youness, your words.

painful, some, yes: but singing

young child frisking a soldier -- Bansky graffiti in bethlehem.

Note: this morning’s write contains some specific language around sexual violence. Just a heads-up. xox, Jen

Sit down here like you’re sitting in front of a page.

Maybe I’m feeling a little bit better. Maybe things don’t look so bleak. Maybe things are opening up. I’ve been reading, rereading, the old books — Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, right now, then before that it was A. Manette Ansay’s Sister and before that it was the Vachss book and before that? What did I just finish? Skimming through Joe Jones and maybe next Danzy Senna’s Caucasia (again, again) — all books having to do with family, with chosen versus blood, with paying close attention, listening to your heart and trusting it, and having to keep on walking into and with life while you’re learning to do that.

What else? I don’t want to be typing or writing at all this morning. I slept in a little, and now I just want to be with my spiced coffee and the rest of my book. It’s nearing its conclusion, and who cares if I’ve read it before: the author builds a powerful story, good suspense, characters I almost want to be, to say nothing of caring about them, so I want to be with them in their story, even as it moves into and through the hard places. Even those — books have been some of my truest lifelong companions, for better or for worse, and the characters I’ve lived with and through and into have modeled for me how I might navigate my own tough stuff — so now I’m with Mama Day, and even though those characters’ lives resemble nothing like mine now, there’s still some powerful magic in being with history, with the story of a family that goes back loving for several generations, and a character who can feel all that solid rooting in time and place.

Here’s what I want: someone who can tell that story for us who are survivors of horror: of sexual violation, of physical abuse, of mental torture, of emotional manipulation, of captivity — for those of us who have had our ties with our own blood severed, or/and who have wished to scrape out of our veins the rest that flowed in us: not suicidal, but wanting to be free of that history, that connection. Who are we then, without those roots? We know we’re not the first generation of survivors, we’re not the first generation whose parents/caregivers/spouses thought we were worthy of abuse: our lineage is in that truth. In the mouths of the ones who came before us. In the whispers and models of resilience: I mean, in the slow ways we learned to keep little pieces of ourselves safe, even if no one told us directly. That’s bone memory, something in these awful cells that knows something about staying alive and keeping bits of oneself whole in the process.

We are of our own blood, it’s true, and/but we are also of that other, larger family, the family that can never gather for a reunion, that sometimes averts its eyes from strangers or looks boldly into your curious face, the family of truth-veined human beings who made it through something horrible, only to have to live the rest of their lives

Maybe its true for almost all of us. Maybe everyone reading knows what I’m talking about. Maybe for most of us, childhood is a torture.

So I’m trying to listen for the voices of before, while I figure out how to move forward now. What does it mean to keep on living when your parents have set you down? I mean that for the small babies found in dumpsters, and I mean that for the children, the teenagers, whose parents would rather kick them out into the street, into the arms of new horror, rather than have a homosexual child in their home; and I mean that for the mothers who hold a child’s hand while the father is raping her. My mother did not hold my hand, and I wonder if it could have been comforting — and I’ll tell you this: in the world that my stepfather constructed, and that we each of us in that house, had to live within, yes: her holding my hand would have been a secondary comfort. And then I would have been worried about how I was going to get in trouble for her having comforted me.

This is awful morning writing. Who wants to read this? And what I meant to talk about was being triggered, walking around with this feeling like my skin isn’t just off, it’s fragmented — that I’ve become several — while I try to figure out what “reality” to pay attention to: my partner’s, my father’s, my friend’s, my sister’s, my own? How could I have a reality of my own, somehow separate from these others? But I’ve been brought back, full-bodied, into that year I was separating from my family: over and over having to convince my stepfather that I wasn’t coming home again, using his language to say no (telling him I understood that I wasn’t evolved enough for his relationship with me as it stood now, that I just wanted to end the sexual part of our relationship); and then, having conversations with my mother and sister that seemed like they were robots, they were working so hard to stay on message, as we’d all been trained; and in my most secretive places, alone in the bookstore, or in a dusty corner of the library stacks or in my notebook at a cafe, I weighed a new understanding of the word incest, and I listened to the voices and the stories of the people who had come before me, and I let them introduce me to their understanding of that word: I felt myself fragmenting. All the ways I had come to understand myself were unordering themselves, and I had to figure out what was really me, and what was someone else’s design/desire.

Rachel Naomi Remen, at the Writing as a Healing Art workshop earlier this summer, talked about stories being able to accompany people into their darkest places. The story that you tell about how you survived, whether it’s surviving a fucked-up supervisor at your job, harassment and torment at school, sexual abuse at home, those stories will accompany those who hear them, and you won’t ever know the good work those stories can do. What happens, for me as a listener as I receive those stories, is a kind of opening into possibility: look how ze did that. Maybe I could do that, too. Or, wait, I never thought about that as a kind of surviving — didn’t I do that, too? I get the chance to revisit my own narrative, reconsider the parts I’ve labeled cowardice, betrayal, isolation, lack of strength, and call them by new names: strategy.

I guess what I’m saying is that I need your stories, still, always. As much as I need, still, to figure out my own. It’s an ongoing calculus, this life. I’m so grateful I don’t have to be all alone in my head all the time. Your stories are there with me, painful, some, yes: but singing.  Thank you –

http://iamachild.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/small_graffiti-in-bethlehem.jpg

‘new’ survivors

Peace March flyer - be the change you wish to see This weekend, a couple of amazing women (thank you Kiki and Elicia!) organized a Peace March and Rally in Richmond, CA, to raise our voices and gather our energies in support of the high school student who was recently raped by a mob of young men — and, too, to speak out against all sexual violences: against all sexualized violence, against all the messages we teach our children equating masculinity with violence, femininity with passivity, against rape as a weapon of war, against sexualized violence as a part of our every day lives.

After missing the first part of the rally, Fresh! and I got to ride alongside the march for a minute, honking, making a whole lotta noise — and we were met with the voices and shouts of the marchers! Then he dropped me off and I jogged to catch up with the small march, raised my voice — it felt good to shout, and I had to cough a couple of times after being so loud: it seems my voice box has grown unaccustomed to loud chanting — and that’s one reason I understood it was good that I was there.

It’s been several years, it seems, since I participated in this sort of anti-sexual violence/pro-peace-for-all rally. It’s been several years since I walked through quiet neighborhoods and shouted: No Rape! No Rape! Was the last time in Maine? How could that be?

It’s not that I haven’t gathered, haven’t witnessed and participated. The last rally in Richmond, last year, for another gang-rape survivor, was a mostly silent candle-lit vigil. That sort of gathering carries its own weight — all of our stories, all of our friends’ and families’ stories, candlit and hungry, sitting just inside our mouths, held and honored and shared in that big big quiet.

I became aware, during the public rage that followed reports of this assault, messages and articles and furious notes I read and listened to online and from friends, of my presence in the aftermath. It’s where I live and work: in the aftermath of sexual violence. the workshops I facilitate, the writing I do, it’s about the after-story — what comes next. All the words I use are prefaced with “re-“: reclaim, restitution, resurrect. Doing over. Taking back. I don’t live anymore in the place of before. Because I can’t. My own body is an aftermath.

And so it was that I felt, too, on this Saturday, that our gathering was kind of the saddest sort of welcoming committee for this young woman. She is one of us now. She has a new name: survivor. Victim. The debates bat those words back and forth, but the fact is that she wears them now. Like we do. She has been violently delivered to our side of the battle ground. And we are standing up to show her she is among our kind now; we put our hands around her and we tend her wounds. These wounds are of her now. She lives in and with them. As we do, too.

I don’t want this for her. I don’t want this for her family or friends. I don’t want this for any of us. I want other options. I don’t want any more rallies of survivors to have to gather at the gates of the next rape, the next rape, the one happening right now. Right now. Right now. Right now. Right now. I want us to be able to disperse these energies, move on to other work — raise our voices in praise of love, not in rage and sorrow.

I raged on Saturday, was grateful for all those gathered, and on Sunday I cried. I felt, again, the big, high vision of the hawk that flew over our gathering toward its end: from up high, I can see that this change won’t manifest in my lifetime. I won’t live to see it. But if I don’t continue to hold on to the hope, hold hands open to the possibility that we as humans can learn to relate to and with one another through something besides the veil of violence and rage, then I close one more light shining the way — does that make sense?

I don’t see how we can make the changes we want to make. I don’t see how we can get there, when sexualized violence is an ever-present option for men, for women, for anyone in power over any other one. I can’t see it. I can’t.

But — here’s the but: I stand together with a group of folks who might otherwise pass one another on the street in judgment, we raise our voices too loud, just loud enough for a Saturday morning neighborhood, we listen to one another’s words and possibilities, we hear young men and women stating new ways, and I hold my hands open to the change one more time. I let my heart imagine it. I listen to men hold men accountable. I listen to women holding one another accountable. We are accountable to one another or there’s nothing left.

If we don’t keep working — which means imagining, which means speaking the possible — saying, yes, this can change. We can change — there’s nothing for the next generations carrying the torch, lighting the way. Right?

I don’t want to be in one more ‘welcoming’ committee, bringing blankets and hotdish and tea and notebooks and pens and oranges and candles to the newly fallen — and still, yes, that’s where my work is right now.

How do we reframe (there it is again: re: frame) this — life? This human-ness?

Does this make sense? Tell me what you think —

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?

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?