Tag Archives: transformative language arts network

the difficult and beautiful struggle around self care

I’d like to say my usual good morning, good morning, but it’s taken me all day to get to this post. Refinding my way into my writing after a long break can go like this. Bear with me, ok?

As the light shifts and we find ourselves fully into autumn (whether it feels like it or not where you are), I hope this finds you brimming with words and readying to write. I certainly know I am.

This month’s newsletter comes to you with 4-leaf clovers and migrating monarchs – see below!) out of the midwest. I found the gift up there the day before I was to give a presentation at the Power of Words conference about self-care for transformative language artists (that is, anyone who uses language in a healing or transformative way: writers, poets, workshop facilitators, storytellers, songwriters, therapists, teachers, and so on). I needed a little good luck…I had arrived at the conference (at Lake Doniphan, just outside of Kansas City) quite depleted after a month full of family, workshops, and preparations to finally complete our new book, Sex Still Spoken here: the Erotic Reading Circle Anthology. The further I got into the month, the more self-care practices dropped away: I stopped running, ate poorly, spent no time in the garden, and even told myself that I didn’t have time or energy to write in the mornings. Despite the fact that that last is always a flashing neon red flag, announcing loudly that I need to make some changes (I am not much fun to be around when I’m not writing regularly), still I kept going, kept doing more, kept depleting myself further. I began to feel like the bottom of a used cookpot — burnt and scoured, and still I kept on scraping at the remnants, expecting to be able to nourish myself and others on charred tailings rather than taking the time to step back, slow down, and replenish.

Do you have months like this? Years like this, maybe?

Now here I was at a conference of my transformative language arts peers, and I barely had any energy to connect with the beautiful, brilliant folks around me. How could I present a talk/workshop about self-care when I had been doing such a poor job of taking care of myself?

monarch butterflies migrating through a Nebraska gardenAfter taking some time to get quiet with the natural world (thank you, monarchs and cicadas), I walked into my workshop with my whole self — I told the gathered participants exactly where I was coming from, and honored how very difficult it can be to take care of ourselves, even when we are working to help others take care of themselves. I described my own experiences of burnout and how I sometimes had to get clear to rock bottom before I believed I deserved to take care of this instrument that is myself. I described how grateful I felt in 2008 when I discovered Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s Trauma Stewardship book and program — and how called out I was by her assertion that we who called ourselves trauma stewards could not possibly do ethical (not to mention sustainable!) work with others if we were not also taking care of ourselves. That one hit home in a big way for me, and yet I am still struggling, six years later, to believe that I am worth taking care of.

We are so many of us trained, early and often, to take care of everyone else before we take care of ourselves. Those lessons are repeated continuously: There is so much need, so much trauma, so many around us who need help. Who do we think we are to take time out of our social change efforts to “replenish the well” (as Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way)? I don’t know about you, but when I’m not taking care of myself, I get into this mindset that says, “If I just do these last few things for them, then I’ll be able to take some time for me.” The trouble is, there’s no end to what I (tell myself I) need to do for other people. There’s no way to finish that to-do list, and I drive myself into the ground trying to “get it all done.”

There’s no such thing as getting it all done — especially not when we’re talking about trauma and its aftermath.

I have to change the paradigm, and put self-care right up at the top of every day’s tasks. This is difficult work, especially when I’ve already slipped back into my codependent-hero costume (complete with Wonder Woman cape, thank you): I am putting everyone else first! Look at how great I am! Never mind that after not very long I’m going to disappear under a rock and quit responding to email messages and phone calls because I’m so overwhelmed — the pendulum swings over to the selfish-shame side of things.

Have you been on this ride? The Wonder Woman side feels great for a little while, but the crash is kind of a drag.

In A Feminist Ethic of Risk, Sharon Welch reminds her readers that we can’t approach social change work with the sort of individualist mindset that many of us (especially white middle class Americans) are trained into — not only must we work in community and collaboration, we must prepare ourselves for small victories and do our work in such a way that we are building a scaffolding for those who will come after us — who will pick up our work after we have gone. If we expect to get it all done today (To do list: buy dish detergent, get flea medicine for cat, take out trash, end rape culture) even in our lifetimes, we are sure to burn out. We have to slow down, breathe deep, work steady and consistently, and remember that we are not alone in our struggles.

I forget this a lot. As a survivor who was, like so many, intensely isolated — and also as an introvert who needs time to myself to process and replenish — I tend to do a lot of my work alone. I live in a community that is both wildly creative and also frantically busy and consistently overwhelmed; we are all trying to figure out how to do our art, create change in collaboration with others, and also pay our rent. I, like so many cultural workers in the Bay Area, find myself taking on too much, trying to Do It All, before depleting my resources and needing to retreat into a bit of quiet until I feel a tiny trickle of water start to flow into the parched desert of my creative soul. Then I dive back into work again full bore, expecting that trickle to do the work of the sea. Working from a place of overwhelm is like having blinders on — all I can see is the road ahead. I forget why I’m doing what I’m doing. I forget why I loved this work. I stop being able to see the impact of my efforts, and begin to despair — why am I working so hard when nothing ever seems to change? What good is this work, anyway? Am I really making any sort of difference?

I showed up at the conference deeply depleted. Thankfully, The Power of Words conference is a space that values authentic presence, and I was able to show up exactly as I was. I talked a little bit about the need for transformative language arts workers to take care of our good and necessary selves, and then we broke into small groups and folks wrote together (this was our prompt) and held one another’s words. It was a gorgeous group of writers, and I found myself — even from the edge of despair on which I was teetering — grateful all over again for what happens when folks write openly and honestly, then share their words with each other and allow themselves to be received with kindness and generosity.

Then I went to Arby’s and got potato cakes by way of celebration — hey, I was home, and only wanted to eat the things my 10 year old self would have wanted to eat.

Since getting back from the conference, I helped launch a book into the world and celebrated its authors, have two new survivors groups beginning, and am preparing for Writing Ourselves Whole’s inaugural reading at San Francisco’s Lit Crawl.  I am also slowing down, not making plans, leaving hours open for daydreaming and reading. The more space I have, the more the words begin to return — and the more able I feel to sit down with them and let them flow onto the page.

Self-care is a difficult practice for any of us, and trauma survivors have our own challenges. I have to remind myself over and over again of Audre Lorde’s words: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

We deserve to preserve ourselves. We deserve to be in our chosen work for the long haul. We deserve to be well inside our skins. I say it to you in order to remind myself as much as to remind you. Thank you for all the ways you are tender with your psyche, body, and soul. Thank you for your spaciousness with others when they are needing to retreat in order to take care of themselves. And, as ever, thank you for your words.

there was glitter, poetry, rage and song

white spray-painted heart on red background, painted on Mass Ave sidewalk in BostonGood morning!  I’m back from my travels, and, as you can see, I didn’t manage to get any blogging done while I was out in New England — there was just too much happening! Now I want to tell you about everything that happened, which would require less of a blog and more of a book.

(Wow: it’s nice to be back here with you, though! I missed this space/time with you –)

What’s true is that I got to spend five days doing transformative language arts (TLA): thinking/talking/wondering about it, being with other folks who think/talk/wonder about it, visioning its possible futures, considering the next year of the Transformative Language Arts Network (of which I am the new membership coordinator — expect to hear a lot more about TLAN around these parts), all the while also practicing TLA.

This year’s Power of Words conference was, again, a gathering of phenomenal artists and cultural workers, social change workers and medical folks, spiritual folks, and healers of many flavors and practices.  The Power of Words was another opportunity to continue to engage with and expand what “transformative language arts” looks like and means: writing workshops, intentional conversation, theater practices, storytelling, spoken word, folk music, blues, choir, community mobilizing to help someone in trouble, using TLA to change our relationship with our health, writing about sex, video creation, Body Eloquence, poetry (period), ‘crazy’ as a story, so so so much more.

This is a space, the Power of Words conference, that’s working hard every year to walk its talk: doing TLA (yes, and other work!) to create this space where folks gather and think about TLA. I’m grateful for those doing the work behind the scenes, the folks I get to work with on the TLAN council: thank you thank you.

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The fall workshops begin next week! (Can it possibly be that next week is October?) Write Whole (our Monday night workshop open to women survivors of sexual trauma) is full, and Declaring Our Erotic (our Thursday night erotic/sexuality writing workshop, this time open to queer survivors of sexual trauma) does still have a few spaces–if you’ve been on the fence about signing up, please send a note! I’d love to answer any questions you have about the workshops… (Bayview Writers has no one signed up yet — if you want to do the Wednesday morning writing-ourselves-from-our-dreams-into-our-day workshop up here in the North Bay, please let me know soon: otherwise we’ll postpone until January 2011.)

Oh: and October’s Writing the Flood is on 10/16 — come write with us!  It’s a great chance to test out the way we write together, if you’ve been thinking about joining one of the multi-week workshops but been nervous or curious about the process.

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I want to tell you about this past week:

  • the exquisite tenderness of spending time with deep, true friends (the people who have known most of my me’s, and who love me nonetheless);
  • the power of driving around VT and NH in the fall, that transition time that used to be the time of returning to safety from the terror of being home; the turning of the trees’ tides, that shift from thick layered summer green to brash splashes of red, yellow and harvest gold, orange, all amid still the full green push of pine and the deciduous that had yet to turn–leaves fell all around us even as we moved through a heat wave on the Goddard campus;
  • a full day of conversation with people consciously and conscientiously engaging transformative language arts in their daily lives about what TLA means and could mean in the future;
  • my first ever board retreat, with the Transformative Language Arts Network Council (talking funds, growth and sustainability, who we are and who we want to be);
  • the deepening of connections with folks I get to see every year at the Power of Words conference, and the opening of new resonances with folks I just met but carry with me now into this daily life, folks I certainly hope to get to meet again next year —

and I carry, too, a sleep-deprived several days with someone who, how do I want to say this, someone who wasn’t exactly present in the same reality I am — that’s not exactly right, she was present in this reality plus another, or more. It was my first experience of someone outside the bounds of sleep, slipping and reveling into communication with someone or someones not visible to me, hearing things I can’t hear. I’m carrying her words, how I got to see her straddling this fence, this slim line or particular consciousness that we all agree to and call ‘reality,’ how I got to be with her, and also became aware that perhaps I wasn’t with her as far as she was concerned: that manifesting and presence-ing of our always-multiple realities. There’s more that I want to say about this part, but right now it’s this, to her: please rest easy. please be well in your heart.

Please know I remember you said daughter, you said god’s creation, and we got to look into each others eyes.

There was glitter and there were songs that moved me over and over into that breaking wet space of tears, there was the phenomenal gathering of women in our Blue talking circle, there was the sharing of poetry and practice, there was deep laughter. There were more people I wanted to have true, thick conversation with than I got to. There was the absolutely amazing group of folks at the erotic writing workshop, where we considered and then dove into the liberatory possibility of engagement with erotic story and writing: there were our powerful powerful (and, yes, hot!) writings. There’s how much I still want to thank you all.

I come back full of song and words, prompts and poems, connections in real life that will carry over, for this year, into the electronic realm, and that sense that there are so many people out there who know/grok what I mean when I say I do “transformative language arts,” and, too, that there’s so much space beneath that umbrella term for the social-changing work so many of us do in the world with story, with song, with words. I bet you fit here, too, if you’re wondering about that.

Prompts to come later this week – thanks for being there, for the breadth of your work in the world, and for your good words.

vozsutra: erotic writing as liberatory practice

graffiti - silhouette of crow flyingGood morning! What’s happening for you today? I’m on the other side of this sick, thank goodness, still soothing a raw nose but able to breathe relatively normally again. Outside the weather’s warm like breath, and standing at my front door, I watch as a fat crow lands in the front yard and hops around, poking into the grass for something tasty. I imagine sitting on the stoop, having hir hop up over to me, getting to rest my hand on hir feathers, getting to heft hir weight. Ze goes the other way, though, through a break in the white plastic-picket fence and onto the sidewalk. I come back inside.

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Here’s something I put into the grant application I sent off last night:

As an incested erotic writer and creator of genre-defying creative nonfiction, I am also a performer and writer-facilitator of writing workshops wherein participants create new work at every meeting; each workshop session is a surprising, experiential, transformative art process.

I like getting to use this language, this academic-grant-y language. It lets me set my eyes to a different sort of truth than I usually name around the workshops. It lets me set something else into possibility, I think. Also, I think it’s true.

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I get to hang outwith Jianda Monique on her Lesbian Relationships podcast (on BlogTalkRadio) here in just a few hours now! 3pm pst/4pm mst (that’s as far as we’ve gotten with the time zone conversion) — I’m looking forward to chatting with her about the workshops, about transformative writing, about the possibilities for sexual healing, and whatever else she comes up with!

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This morning I’ve been working on my presentation for the workshop I’ll offer at the Transformative Language Arts Network‘s annual Power of Words conference next week, “Reclaiming the Erotic Story: The Liberatory Potential of Writing Desire”. (As a side note: I kind of like that title! I don’t at all remember creating it… whew.)

Here’s some of what I’ve said before about erotic writing as transformative practice, in an essay I often hand out at erotic writing retreats:

What happens when we all have a wider access to erotic language and sexual expression – when the full breadth of our erotic power can challenge the mainstream Western sexual conversation which is both so puritan and so hyper-sexual? When we try our hand at some explicit writing, and discuss what it means to engage more critically and imaginatively with the messages we all have received (both directly and indirectly) about such things as sexual identity, body image, sexual desire, sexual practice, and more, we can reconsider what we’ve been taught about desire and language and dive fully into the much greater possibilities of and through each.

There’s a Dorothy Allison quote I like to pass out to new erotic writers, in which she describes the importance of learning to write sex:

If I hadn’t learned to write about sex, and particularly to write about my own sexual desires, I don’t think I would have survived.  I think the guilt, the terror I grew up with was so extraordinarily powerful that if I had not written my way out of it, I’d be dead …And I think it’s vital [to write about], aside from whether it ever becomes good fiction, particularly for women with transgressive sexuality…[or] people who in any way feel their sexuality cannot be expressed.  Writing can be a way to find a way to be real and sane in the world, even if it feels a little crazy while you’re doing it. (From The Joy of Writing About Sex, by Elizabeth Benedict)

People sometimes still, I think, may take erotic writing to be frivolous work, but in my experience, this writing is where some wholly deep transformations occur, and where enormous risks are taken.

[…] Erotic writing is and is not just about writing about sex.  It also can be about expanding one’s own possibility through language.   For me, erotic writing has created internal space for previously unexpressed desire, wish, need – which has not been confined to the sexual realm.

That last there is where the liberatory potential resides (liberation: when something or someone is released or made free; the state of not being in confinement or servitude): how we can liberate ourselves and one another into a much greater erotic/sexual complexity than our current American society prefers/allows, and how that liberation creates the ripple effects for more and more erotic desire to permeate the rest of our lives…

More about this as we get closer to the conference. And hey! Registration is still open! If you’re near (or want to be near) Plainfield, Vermont, next week, and you do or want to do work around/with writing/storytelling/song/theater/words as change agents/transformative practices for individuals, communities, societies — it’d be so amazing to be with you at the Power of Words conference. Will you think about it? Maybe pass the word to friends you’ve got in New England?

(Note that I still don’t know where I’m staying — maybe we’ll all rent a hotel room together!)

Thanks for your fierce gentleness with yourself today, at least that one time when you looked in the mirror. Thanks for your words, always.