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book snippet: who asks us?

(Good morning, good morning! While I’m away, I wanted to share with you some pieces from my book, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, which is coming out next month! I’ll post one of these a week, on Friday mornings. Be easy with you, ok? And please keep writing…)

Cover of Writing Ourselves Whole book, the view of a small island from a wooden deck, you can see the edge of the deck, water, and a green island in the distance. The title reads Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, Jen Cross.From the section “who asks to hear your story?”:

“What happened to you? What was your childhood like? Want to tell me what brings you in today? How are you doing? Why don’t you like me to touch you there? Why are you so quiet/loud/scared/angry/sad all the time? How come you have so much sex? Why don’t you like surprises? How come you won’t have sex with me? What happened that night? Why don’t you want to talk about it? Do you want to tell me what happened to you?”

To be asked to “tell your story,” one of your core-being stories, is to be asked for a piece of your heart, a chunk of your Real Self. When someone says to me, I want to hear your story, my belly tightens with hope and anxiety. Sharing my history of sexual abuse and how I’ve lived since is a wildly vulnerable act. What if they can’t take it? I worry. What if they can’t really hear me? And, maybe even scarier to consider: What if they can?

Who asks to hear traumas stories—I mean, really hear them? And how long does it take to believe that someone really wants to hear us?
Cops ask some of us. Parents ask. Sometimes a friend will ask. Sometimes lovers ask. Therapists, of course. That’s not very many people. Most of the people we spend our lives around don’t ask and don’t want to know. They want a pop song, a poster, a bumper sticker. They don’t want the sticky sweet rot of our true details. That messes up the cool ocean breeze and gently swaying grasses of their triumphant sunset cinematic fantasies of Everything Is All Better Now.

This sounds cynical. I understand the triumphant sunset cinematic fantasy, of course I do. I carry it, too. It’s a great place to visit, but a hard place to be expected to live.

•§•

Of course, a powerful draw of therapy is that someone to listen to our whole story with compassion and empathy and non-judgment (at least, ideally). The bounds of the therapeutic relationship mean that our telling is contained and confined, which we often need.
Consider what it takes for us to unravel our full story for those who share the rest of our lives. What a risk, to allow ourselves to be more fully beheld.

We believe no one will love us if they know who we really are, what we carry, what we’ve done, what’s been done to us—and the more we don’t expose ourselves to those we love, the more certain we are of the old story of our unlovablity.

And then what if they can’t hold it? We are afraid that our stories, that we ourselves, are “too much”—and given that our story has probably frightened or overwhelmed friends, that we’ve had family ignore or discount what we told them, this fear doesn’t arise out of nowhere.

The page asks for your story. In writing, we can be free to say just what we want to say, to tell the story however we want to tell it, without editing ourselves based on how our listener reacts. A workshop participant once described to me a difference she appreciated between a traditional support group and the survivors writing group: in the support group, she spent a lot of the session rehearsing what it was she wanted to say, or editing it based on the group’s energy, so she couldn’t focus well on the folks who shared before her. In our writing group, though, we all wrote together, and when it was time to share, because her story was already crafted, she could give more attention to the other stories being shared in the circle—and trusted that she had the full attention of others in the room as well.

Just because someone has asked for our story doesn’t mean we should tell them, doesn’t mean they can hold us, doesn’t mean they’re safe. We listen to our instincts. We know when someone is interested, really interested, in hearing more, when someone has shut down or slipped into overwhelm. We expand or pull back in, accordingly. We don’t want to slip the sticky heartbeat of our stories into hands that cannot hold them, into ears that have turned to stone—or worse, to negative judgment or disbelief. We employ the skill (likely developed during our abuse) to redirect attention away from ourselves. Sometimes we tell those wrong folks anyway, because we are hopeful and lonely, because we want to believe they’re good for us (no matter what our intuition says), and sometimes because we believe or feel like we have no other choice.
I have had ridiculous responses to my stories. Someone once asked, “Did you like what you did with your sister?” Someone else asked, “Do you think about doing it again when you see her now?” Others have believed that now they understood, after having heard some part of my history, why I was queer, or why I was feminist. Some listeners have cut me off with the sincere appellation “brave,” when what I wanted was to be understood as so much more complicated than that.

What I want to tell is the truth, to burst the bubble of that sunset fantasy. What I want is to download it all so that I don’t have to tell it again, even though I will never stop telling it. What I want is to get it right so that you can see the land I live in and what I look like inside, so that I don’t have to be alone there anymore.

(Thank you for reading, and for your words today…)

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book snippet: what writing can do

(Good morning, good morning! While I’m away, I wanted to share with you some pieces from my book, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, which is coming out next month! I’ll post one of these a week, on Friday mornings. Be easy with you, ok? And please keep writing…)

Cover of Writing Ourselves Whole book, the view of a small island from a wooden deck, you can see the edge of the deck, water, and a green island in the distance. The title reads Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, Jen Cross.From the section “what writing can do for survivors”:

This is what I believe: Give us safe space, a “room” of our own and we will create change in our lives. We learn what it means to lie and truth our way to safety, to lie our way home. We must take what we need to continue the process of survival, which is ultimately a process of resistance: the pen the paper the time the space the cafe or bedroom or kitchen table the 3 a.m. living room the subway train the cemetery the laundromat the whatever it is we need.

Take me backward into your dreams and let me watch you stumble. Your language is yours alone, the sounds of your body the stretch and wrinkle of your face the wrinkled words and nods, shrugs and shivers and shifts of eyeballs. You know your own way and I cannot tell it for you. I can hold your hand, though, and promise to listen while you float in your own waters, while you choke down the nausea of history in your instance to see the clownfish and schools of yellowtail floating around the coral of yourself. (2003)

In the years I’ve written with groups of sexual trauma survivors, I’ve become convinced that every person has artistic brilliance in them. There hasn’t been a single person in any writing group I’ve ever facilitated who hasn’t generated work that surprises them and astonishes listeners. Not one. And this isn’t because I’m some kind of genius facilitator—this is about what happens when survivors gather to share their stories through poetry and metaphor, song and testimony.

Pat Schneider says in her book, Writing Alone and With Others, “What I believe is not what everyone believes. It is this: There is no place for hierarchies in the heart, and the making of art is a matter of the heart. Art is the creative expression of the human spirit.” Together, we who participate in these writing groups engage in the co-creation of a space that allows for risk, performance, and play. We who have been denied hearings by those in power can assist and heal ourselves and each other. There is powerful pleasure, connection, and transformation possible through the sharing of ourselves through story, and deep change occurs when we have the audacity to articulate the truths of our lives.

When we come together this way, assiduously working to remain aware and respectful of the differences among us, and share our words, we get to acknowledge our ability to create beauty—both because we listen to our own poetic phrasing and descriptions, and because others tell us what is beautiful and strong for them in the writings we offer. We hear, witness, and open (to) the beauty in ourselves and in others; we “seek[] a language that allows [us] to imagine a new world without forgetting the tragedies of the past,” as theologian Sharon Welch wrote. It’s a revolution when we, who have spent years reiterating to ourselves the lessons of ugliness learned at our abusers’ hips, are able to acknowledge splendor in ourselves.

•§•

One Monday night, several years ago, a group of writers gathered in my living room for the fourth of eight meetings of a survivors writing group. Three walked in together, laughing, having met at the front door of my apartment building. One was already here, and the others arrived soon after. My homely little living room with its tangerine-orange walls was full of conversation as the writers made their tea and gathered up plates of snacks: nuts, strawberries, baby carrots, potato chips, and dark chocolate. The tenderness, delight, and anticipation was palpable. If not for their readiness to claim trauma survivor openly, the writers would not have found themselves in this room, thrumming with the heartbeat of creative connection.

This deep connectedness doesn’t emerge in every single group—sometimes folks don’t click quite as completely; that’s a possibility for any group of people. Still, it’s not uncommon for the writers, two or three weeks in, to find their hearts broken open to one another. We find we care about each other as people. We care about each other’s histories, but even more, we care about one another’s now. Folks exchange phone numbers, offer rides to and from the subway, email each other during the week. We begin to allow ourselves to connect.

For those who have been shamed, called stupid or dull, for those taught that kindness is weakness or weapon (and what American has not been taught this?), for those who believed no one would listen, for those whose voices went dormant, for those silenced or terrorized, the steps we take together when we write, read, and respond allow us to organically unlearn old lessons, and allow our psyches to gently internalize something new, something that was always true: we have a necessary story to tell and we are enough for that telling; we deserve (and deserved) to be listened to; we have something to share; the story of our survival helps others heal and grow. Our words are necessary sustenance for ourselves, yes, and for others in our communities, too.

•§•

There is magic that happens for a survivor who sits down and writes herself to the page in stunning visions, who sits down with other survivors and reads her real self: her surviving, wondering, hungry, difficult, fragmented, gorgeous self. The writing opens up the tight fist of power and control and drops us out—the writing opens up a chasm, the writing throws over a bridge, the writing topples buildings and walls, boulders fall, steam rises, the room opens. We don’t do anything when we hear each other except bear witness, and maybe that’s all that matters. Yes, we hear and, yes, we speak our listening and, yes, we say this is where I swell when your words touch me. Yes, we listen hear want desire imagine. The pen is a vision is a dream shimmering, the oil slick silvery rainbow over the deep well of tide pool we will eventually dive into.

Writing makes a difference. Visualizing and hoping makes a difference. When we write this way, we risk becoming aware of ourselves differently. We can take the lessons we were taught, the rules and regulations of our traumatized selves, and walk through them like a ruined house of mirrors. We don’t have to be who they—the abusers, the school teachers, the boys on the bus—told us we were.

What I have learned deeply, what I have internalized through this transformative writing practice, is that there’s no such thing as “doing it right” when it comes to writing and when it comes to sex and when it comes to living in the aftermath of sexual trauma. We are infinite in our abilities, in our possibilities.

•§•

Someone said, if we don’t tell our stories, others will tell them for us, and they will get them wrong. The stories that the others tell about you will be used to build policy and pathology, will be used to build boxes to hide you in, used to build walls to close around you, used against you. If we do not tell our stories, the stories told about us will be used to our detriment.

We are a nation of subjected and silenced people. We are a nation of people trained into the difference of others as reason enough to kill them. We are a nation raised on our supremacy—America is the greatest country in the world!—and we believe it even as we see our leaders stripping away our bedsheets and clothes, snatching the food from our and our children’s mouths, tearing down our homes, thieving the books from our children’s hands and tossing it all on the bonfires of their war, tossing it all into their own furnaces, selling our labor on the open market to the highest or most connected bidder and pocketing the money themselves.

Still: 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, and we have our voices. We can use them to our own ends, and in service of those we love and all we believe in, rather than allowing ourselves to be deployed in service of those in power through our silence. Through this writing practice, 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 present. I am seen and I see. I am heard. This is the opposite of dissociation. This is the practice of embodiment, the practice of resistance, the practice of freedom.

(Thank you for reading, and for your words today…)

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we are in the work of making it through

graffiti - red paint on blue background -- of a heart in a cageTonight I have so much I want to write about, so many bits and pieces of memory and present that are braiding themselves together inside me, but at this exact moment as I type I am simply feeling grateful.

I drive these green-lined roads under thick grey skies and I remember the aches and sorrows and desire and fear that lived in me when I lived here last. I remember how sure I was that nothing was ever going to change, that I would always wake up from night terrors with my heart in my throat and my body awash in tension,  that I would always feel unsatisfied, and unsatisfying, as though fully and forever incapable of connecting with others or believing they could truly like or love me for just who I was, flaws and all. I keep thinking about what a difficult person I must have been to live with, to be friends with, to try to love.

Today, over a lovely lunch, I listened to old friends talk about a couple of young people I used to know, who I knew when they were much younger than they are now; they are having a difficult time of it. They don’t see a forward ahead of them when they look to the future. They are sure they are alone and fighting the world, even though they have a swarm of supporters surrounding them, loving them from the distance at which they are kept.

And I thought, I remember feeling this way. I remember the certainty that I was alone, that no one really loved me, that if anyone said they loved me it was probably because 1) they didn’t really know me, or 2) they wanted something from me, or 3) there was something wrong with them. I remember not being able to feel, at all, the deep desire on the part of friends and family that I trust them, lean into them, allow myself to recognize their care. I remember how unsafe their care felt. I remember looking into the future and seeing only that same hazy grey static that had nothing but loss clouding its horizon. I remember thinking that nothing would ever change.

And then it did.

I wanted to tell these young folks to hang on. And I want to tell the folks who love them to hang on. Look at me. Look at my sister. We were never meant to come back into a place of sanity We were trained into a madness so thick it is a wonder we can speak in coherent sentences. And there were years that it seemed — to us, to those who loved us — that we would do nothing but wallow in that madness for the rest of our lives. But we kept reaching. Something in each of us kept reaching, even when, consciously, all we wanted to do was take off our gloves, step out of the ring, and quit the fight. Somedays all we could do was stay alive, believing that maybe tomorrow something would be a little bit different. Maybe some people thought we were hopeless. We certainly thought we ourselves were hopeless (though neither of us ever thought the other was hopeless).

I want an “it gets better” campaign for survivors of sexual abuse and violation. I want those of us who have reached another side (not the other side, just any other side) of the pain and devastation and horror and certainly of forever-brokenness to send out our voices to those who are just entering these waters and can’t see anything around them but the grey wash of endless hostile waters and nothing but their own arms and determination to keep them afloat. Even though I know they are needed into a tremendously difficult journey that may bear only marginal similarity to my own, I still want to say tho them, it can get better. I didn’t believe it could, and then it did. And then my life improved in ways I never would have even allowed myself to imagine.

I want this messaging for those who love these survivors, too: if you hold on with them, even at a distance, know that it can get better — their lives can get better, their love for themselves can get better, they will find work that engages them but only after they find work that harms them, work that bores them, survival skills that look to you like sheer destructiveness.

Tonight I am grateful for the fact of healing, and am grieving for those who are just beginning this work, this work of survivors, choosing to live, after suffering loss and violence and abuse. This who make choices in service to their own survival that folks around them can’t understand.

What am I trying to say here? I guess it’s just this: do whatever the fuck you need to do to keep yourself alive, please. And know that you are not alone in your grief, in your loss, in your terror. Though, of course, your particular grief, your particular rage, is yours, and yours only, and, in some ways, no one else will never understand what you have been through. That’s true. And, what’s also true is that many, many, many — far too many — other people have been through something similar or close or akin to what was done to you, that another grief is shaped an awful lot like yours. And there are people around you for whom you think you are too much, your rage is too much, our bad behavior is too much, who you will act terribly towards in order to prove to yourself and them and the world that you are as unloveable as you were told that you were — and they will love you anyway, some of them. I want to say that I’sorry for what you are about to go through, and I want you to know that there is another side to it. What looks like an unchangeable wall of shattered overwhelm and depression and grief that feels so big you can never look at it directly for fear that it will swallow you and turn your body inside out — all this will one day look different. I don’t know if that makes any of what will come in-between this day and that — the long and painful road of healing — any better or easier. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe if I’d known that one day I would feel joy in my body and safe in my skin    like maybe there is something in me truly worth loving    like I am not all incest   like maybe  I can be something else something more something greater —  maybe I would have felt impatient, I would have tried to jump ahead. Who knows.

I hope you will find some way to art your way through it – to write, or to draw, or to sing, or to dance, or to do all of the above, or to paint, or to otherwise create from and through and with the raw material of your deep and gorgeous and messy truth and confusion and memory and living and loss.

I guess today I’m just aware of what survival takes, what it takes to choose to live, what it takes to decide to wake up and get out of bed and take another single tiny step forward, day after day, anyway – even though the demons of pain are still yanking at your ankles and reminding you how worthless you are. You’re not. I wasn’t. My sister wasn’t. We aren’t. We are in the work of making it through.

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come back

Angel breaking through the wallGood morning. The music is going, the coffee is percolating, and the rose blooms wide open, like my body. I am surrounded by the books that I love and the home I have made for myself.

I want to tell you that I never believed I could get here, to this place, of possibility and celebration. I reach back into the years of despair, if only to remember again what it felt like to wake up hopeless, if only to remember what it felt like to not ache, not believe. I hoped and longed for and wanted but did not believe I deserved. I did not ever see myself getting here, to the place I wanted: a body that was certain of and curious about itself, hands filled with words and joy, a little apartment in the city that was a haven for language and resilience. But that is what I have.

Today’s post is brought to you by this quote from a poem by Kallie Falandays:
“I want to give you your history back.
Your fingers back. I want to tell you yes.”

and by this quote from Carl Jung:

“In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential that we embody. If we do not embody that, life is wasted.”

This morning I want to say yes. I am afraid, and I am resolved. These are the things that I can do. I can write sex, I can adore poetry, I can wonder at the mystery of the world. I can find words for the tenderest absurdities that occur in the erotic body, I can be a woman who clawed her way back into her own skin. I can remember what it was like to feel outside of my own bones. I can laugh at what wants to dissuade me. I can long for your yes. I can find words for this now of our recovery. I can be the girl with the birds in the back of her throat.

I may never be the safe and clean thing you’d hoped to birth. I may be always sharing words of danger with the strangers who hover around your shoulders.

The poet says, “I want to give you your history back. I want to give you your fingers back. I want to tell you yes.” I want you to know your essences, I want you to feel the importance of your presence on this earth surging through every one of your cells. I want yes to sing through your every syllable. I am speaking to the hardened and to the lost. I am speaking to you who is stuck in her bed. I am speaking to the old me, to the me I’ll be again: despairing and certain she will be forgotten. I am speaking to the one who knows for sure she will never desire again. I am speaking to the broken, to you who do not believe you will ever be welcome to to unfurl.

I want your myriad, cacophonous voices. I want your heavy stories. I want the words that lodge at the back of your throat. I want your mysteries and countenances. I want the history that you have not been allowed to share. I want to hear why you’re sure it’s your fault. I want to listen to you. I want the room to listen to you. I want you to take up all the airtime you need. I want you to talk for hours. I want your words to fill the world. I want the lenses to focus in I want everything to center on you. I want you to tell us. I want you to say it. I want you to put them into words, all those hauntings that shred the edges of your consciousness, your everyday walk to work, your now.

Come back to us. Don’t keep all your songs to yourself. Allow yourself to offer the generosity of the horror that lives in your bones. Do you understand me? Your history is not your burden to carry alone. You are not meant to do this work alone. You are meant to have other hands help you in the carrying, other ears and lungs and legs; it is not meant to be that the deepest intimacy in your life is between you and your violator. Do you understand me? You are meant to settle into the circle of darkness and light that we all share. You are meant to be a part of this humanity, this collection of desecrations and holy knowings, this confabulation of traumas and resiliences. You are not alone. No one will know your story if you do not share it with us. No one will know what you saw and felt and know if you do not release those ephemera and terrors into language.

We need all the wordings you can wonder yourself into. We need them to know you, and to know ourselves. Get lost in the sorrow if you have to — of course, sometimes we all have to — but come back soon. We need what you have to tell us. The essence of you is a necessary part of this earthly existence. Tell us what you have seen.

Thank you.

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extra:ordinary – how something is made flesh

(Our final post in the extra:ordinary project (stories of everyday survival and resilience) comes from Renee Garcia of Berkeley, CA — a stunning piece that tackles this idea of monstrousness that so many survivors live with, and reveals the tremendously creative work we do to keep ourselves living and alive. Thank you, Renee, for offering this beautiful piece as the finale to our project.)

How something is made flesh

no one can say

1.
How something is made flesh no one can say. She knew the story of her birth. She remembers in bits of static and some old pictures that didn’t get burned up in the fire, and some stories people told about her being born. Not a boy. Not a boy. She knew from some stories and the pinched look on her mother’s face and the vacant dreamy look on her father’s face that she was never born not really. Not in the made flesh sort of way. She was born like a story they told themselves about having a baby. Because that’s what normal people (not monsters) do. They fall in love (and they did fall in love with their broken-ness and made themselves as one (like monsters do with magic) and they had a baby. Little white perfect baby clothes. A white crib. The house scrubbed to brightness. They had a baby who cried all the time. They had a baby they were not equipped for as normal people, as broken people made as one, as monsters made by the dark shadow whispers in his ear saying take this flesh and eat of it. As the dark shadow whispers in her ear saying take this flesh and kill it-this will destroy everything and besides it won’t stop crying.

2.
She knitted herself a person suit from watching how other real people acted. She made herself a person suit from feathers she tore into strips, from bacon fat, from red clay gathered in the foothills of the Sierras, from old stories she dreamed from her real ancestors from long ago. She knitted herself up with her broken hands and didn’t mind the pain. Giving birth is painful even when you are making your self. Her own flesh that she crafted that smelled like the earth and bread baking and wild flowers that were really just weeds. She used tree bark and the trees allowed it. She used other people’s stories and dropped consonants from when they talked too fast. She walked until she was used to it. Her feet were the best thing she made. She made them from poems and old church hymns and wild grasses and river rocks. They were sturdy and determined and kind and could carry her for miles and miles. She threw away the original flesh, it had gotten ruined and who says you can’t make your own flesh. She is only sorry she forgot the wings.

3.
How do you unmake human flesh no one can say.

So easy the hand over the mouth. So easy the underwater bath. She remembers being underwater as much as she remembers air. She remembers becoming flesh painfully over a life time because she was othered into the sheets and coated in bleach and dressed up like a doll and taken into the world silenced and golden with pretty. People said so. Little perfect dresses and shiny black Mary Janes. She was pretty and a good child until she learned how to climb the tinker toy scaffolding she made when they were asleep all normal people sleep (and monsters too) and then she was a bad child but that made her real. A real live something. Girl was wrong. Boy was just a dream. A real live creature. The one that lived in the trees and listened for the bird song and shot hoops in the back yard where she cleaned up all the dog shit from all the dogs she loved and he disappeared.

4.
Who can say how flesh becomes human or human becomes monster. The monster is in everyone. We want to have it be dark and mysterious and impossible. We want hollywood 3D glasses and popcorn and screams and relief that there are no monsters. There are monsters everywhere. Not under the bed. Just under the in breath. Human, monster. It’s waiting like our cells wait to mutate. When cancer breaks in, or some other dis ease that says you belong to me now. Monster is the same. It’s just a state we occupy or don’t. Monsters are made by human flesh made flesh in an equation that is as ordinary as cracking an egg into the fying pan. It’s a choice often it’s a choice. Some of us get made that way. But monster is a tribe too.

The word “monster” derives from Latin monstrum, an aberrant occurrence, usually biological, that was taken as a sign that something was wrong within the natural order.[1]

5.
Something was wrong with the natural order. Sure. She knows that as she looks at the family tree on the big butcher paper and she draws vines around the throats of the one’s she hates in her own loving way. She can’t cross them out and un-make them, it’s too late. She can only decorate them. No off with their heads magic doesn’t work backwards at least not until she deciphers the mysteries of time travel. Then who can say. And if she takes their heads will she take her own because they came first or will her own determined flesh making win out over the sperm and the egg. She can’t complain and doesn’t this is how she got herself this how she started before she made her own consecrated flesh. These are the stories she does not tell her children. She only tells herself.

6.
Sometimes she becomes flesh and real and breathing in the touching of another and another touching her. Skin to skin. Warmth. Breathing. Loving. Fucking. She is alive then and fluid and moving and it’s like all the sunshine days rolled into one and falling from a high tree before the ground bites her back with it’s gravity rules. The falling is a flying without wings and it tastes like all the good things. Like wild berries and hot sourdough bread and lips in the first kiss or the last kiss. It tastes like real and round and hard and sharp and she never doesn’t feel baptized and saved from the darkness then. She is a real live girl now even when the flashbacks arrive on cue, like a line of toy soldiers that demand their viewing in formation until she knocks them over or turns them into art with a blow torch and glue and paint and glitter.

7.
This is how she is made flesh. Writing herself into her own story. Drinking iced tea that is strong and almost bitter and adding lemon. Her mouth wakes up. Digging in the dirt and tasting it. Dirt tastes as real as anything else and it’s organic. And free. Remembering that she used to bleed. Forgiving the moon for everything. She is made flesh over and over again by wishing it so. She will finally learn how by heart when it’s time to let the flesh go and become a cloud walker again. Who can say how flesh is made. We say it and say it, we tell the stories and tell the stories and we make it so.

(Thank you, Renee, and thank you to all of our extra:ordinary project contributors — and to all of you who read and shared these words and manifest, every day, the extraordinary resilience, that beautiful work of remaining, in the aftermath of trauma.)

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dana: what survivors offer each other

I woke up with the phrase, “You don’t owe me anything” repeating, repeating. Was this from a dream?

You don’t owe me anything: you don’t owe me paperclips or postits or charts or rantings or emptied inkpens or chewed pen caps or filled notebooks. You don’t owe me your survival. You don’t owe anyone — not even yourself. This isn’t about owing at all.

Owe is about debt, right? Who told you you were indebted to other survivors?

We others who’ve been raped might’ve walk a path similar to yours years or months or decades or millennia or a few minutes before you but never actually stepped onto the path you’re going to have to traverse. And those who came after you — who started crawling up the long muddy hill after their own rape, moving ceaselessly toward sunlight, toward seaside, toward brambles and muckraking, toward prairie and quicksand and too-dense forest clouded with birdsong — you don’t know what path they’re on, either. Maybe there’s something familiar about where they’re going to where you’ve been but no healing is ever exactly the same.

This morning I am thinking about this idea of owing, and I realize I want another word. Not the language of commerce or debt — maybe something closer to dāna, a generous offering that expects nothing in return, something that looks more like cairns left by a previous traveler: an offering of time, of presence, and of beauty for any future travelers, understanding that no one may ever come this way again but if they do, this offering says: someone was here before you; someone else came this way, this far — in this moment, touching these stones and the intention that shaped them into this form, know that you are not alone.

This sort of offering can be a part of the healing/recovery/reclamation process after an experience of sexual violence — the sharing of and from our own experience out for others, when it is given freely and with no expectations. It can also be a healing thing not to feel that we are required to do this: no one is entitled to your experiences. Can we get away from this guilty language of owing?

What I want to say is this: we learn when we teach — we have to take a thing more deeply into our bodies when we want to help someone else understand it. What happens, then, when we can offer to others our learning/practices around radical self care or the sharp spikes in the nights of struggle? This is about offering, about chance, about saying yes to someone you will never know, who may or may not benefit from our words or experience. We all walk this road a different way, miles and acres and continents and generations of the raped crisscrossing psychic landscapes, struggling not at all zombie-like, now and again touching hands with someone who has something to share. This is a profound generosity, something not owed but freely extended.

Sometimes that offering looks like a history, a map of our own survival. We want to tell about the nightmares and that they will stop–or at least change shape significantly; we want to tell about the years of drinking too much and sex that felt like marionette encounters in the middle of a dust bowl, of friends who can’t hear us and strangers who understood, of the complex webbing that is family and where we placed the cuts that freed us and where we are still tethered — yet our map only covers the landscape of our particular life’s terrain. Someone else would take this map, overlay it onto their own lives, and not recognize any of the landmarks, the mountain ranges all different, the pitfalls and turns and straightaways shifted. Maybe here and there, a short stretch will correlate; here is where we touch hands in the night, as we pass one another.

Still, the creation of the map is of use — we can create an artifact of our trajectory, of the great efforts we have made on behalf of our own lives. We offer this to ourselves first. We point at milestones, telling the stories: look, here’s where I scaled that building with only my fingernails  and a fraying rope; god, was I bruised when I got to the top. Each point on the map is a story we can offer, and in the stories, someone else might hear something that they can use as they go on their own way.

(What would you offer to other survivors? What does your map look like? This could be a prompt for today. Take twenty minutes, write into it, don’t stop or edit — follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.)

Big love and gratitude for your offerings, for your generosity, for your words.

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one more for Memorial Day

For our first write at the Memorial Day Write Whole meeting, I offered the following three fragments as prompts:

We took twenty minutes for this exercise. Here’s what I wrote:

This is what memory does: it shrinks and stretches, perforates and fades. My mind isn’t so much a sieve as a yellowed photograph, the pages of a book left too long open in the sun — the words bleached away and me now searching with my hungry eyes, again again, trying to write the true story of that girl who was.

A new book brings new possibility and on Memorial Day I am not thinking about the fallen soldiers because that’s not the story of the family I come from. On Memorial Day, I am thinking about all the unacknowledged wars, the kids who will attempt tonight to navigate embattled homes, who will tiptoe or clobber their way through mealtime, who will shroud themselves in headphones music television Facebook, who will do everything they can to settle the surface of their should just a little further away from themselves — when the heads or hands or mouths come reaching to feed upon them, they will not hurt quite so much, because there will be less of them in existence able to feel anything at all.

I am thinking about the people whose partners think that home is the place for fury and hostility, for the rageful, shaming behavior that just isn’t appropriate for the work place and so it has to be kept bottled up all day long. I don’t need to tell you what happens at home, do I?

I am thinking of the survivors  today, not of the fallen, because I don’t have fallen soldiers, fallen veterans of foreign wars, in my immediate family. I have fallen veterans of domestic wars, of undeclared wars. I am thinking of the wars against trans folks, against every young person taught to interrogate every breath and fragrance of movement, every trace of their behavior in the world, taught to believe that no one will or could ever love their true selves, taught to wear their beauty like armor, like something brandished, yes, truly like a weapon.

I am thinking of the folks who are trained to assume forever the world’s hostility — who assume, forever, that no one will ever approach them with positive intent, because most of the world hadn’t ever done so — isn’t this the terror, the horror, the casualty: when we look at the world through the cloud of an assurance, an assumption, of disrespect and betrayal, those lenses shape what we can receive.

I want to share with you the work of tendernesses required between those of us in an embattled and surviving community. I want tender eyes to peer at the casualty that is sometimes the aftermath of our attempts to reach of one another, caused by old rage and shame, terror, and survivor skills that force us into coffin-shaped boxes. We would rather strike out at each there than peel back what has protected us, what has made it possible for us to last this long. Sometimes exposure will not save us. Sometimes the old layerings of sorrow are just too hard. Sometimes stone takes its root inside of us and that bedrock becomes all we can believe in.

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unsolicited advice for a survivor

Rockridge HeartsThis is what I want to say: It won’t end. You won’t get fixed. You won’t reach a place where you name is Healed and incest doesn’t feed you breakfast anymore. The people who tell you You’ll get over it don’t know what they’re talking about, because they live in their own closed cage of denial. You have been transformed. You are not the same as you were Before. And you will never not also be who you were Before — but it may be some years before these layerings of yourselves can sit in the same room with you and have coffee in the morning. There is no such thing as getting over it. There is the business of living through. There is learning to breathe again, there is learning you are worthy of the air you breathe, there is having to breathe when you know you are not worthy. There is you, just breathing. You will have years called Night and years called Drunk and years called Weep and years called Frozen and years called Broken and Fuck. You look at this and think you can’t bear so many years of pain — but what’s true is that all those years are also called Freedom.

You will not always be in pain. Your heart will harden and soften at the same time. You will forget all the names you ever had, you will climb into a skin so different from the one you were fucked into that not even your mother — especially not your mother — will be able to recognize you. This may or may not be a cocoon. It might just actually be the true face of your new eyes. Every stage of healing is a phase, like this breath you are taking is a phase, like this heartbeat is a phase, like a single kiss is a phase is an instant an instantiation of your personhood. Phase means nothing except you are still alive. Ignore them when they tell you that whatever you’re experiencing now is just a phase. Ignore their relief, if it comes, when you enter a different phase. They do not sing with all the tendons of your body and they can’t speak the truth of your soul. Sit with the people who can hold your surfaces and your undersides.

One day you will say yes to your skin, yes to sex, yes to the feel of your body alive and inhabitable. The next day you will wrench up with No again. There will be years like this. There will be two yes hours in a row. There will be days when you don’t say his name, nights when the dreams in which you cannot move begin to stretch and taffy in your psyche, one day inside you will take the knife he brandishes and turn it on him. That will be a good day.

Know that this that you’re in right now will change. Be with people who can hold the shimmer of insurrection that is the space between who you were raped to be and who you are becoming. Be with those who can open their hands out to rage, who are imperfect in their holding, who want to fix it, who understand that there is nothing to fix. Understand that you will emerge from broke, that broken is a necessity, that no human passes through life whole, that none of us are anything other than whole. Believe that broken is necessary if one wants to see all sides of a thing. Know that you are because of and in spite of, you are of and not of, you are welcome in this human family, you have never been outside its true skin. We are just a people who has forgotten how to open our hands to those who need our receiving, who deserve a welcome, a yes, an apology. Know that the platitudes people offer you exist so that you can climb inside something together, that they are a doorway that you can meet each other through when the words don’t work anymore. Know that words will fail you but you will keep trying to unwrap them to find what lives inside, because for all the pain there you will never stop wanting to know and to share what lives truly inside yourself.

(A write from last night’s Write Whole survivor’s writing group meeting.)