Tag Archives: trauma aftermath

it all stays (es bleibt alles)

Poster on a stick, pink background behind a line drawing of a house; inside the house are the words Good morning, good morning. Upstairs, the bread dough is resting on the breadboard. I wake up to a room smelling of wild yeast, dough rising. I think a house should always smell like freshly baked bread, or about-to-be-baked-bread, don’t you?

Sometimes you make a decision and you feel something land in you, a place of possibility opens, a thing of yes hollows out all the no you’ve swallowed, and makes itself at home. You become a place where yes can live. Where future can live. Where tomorrow can live. Where hope can live. Some days you are all outshine and coffee grounds, you are the flicker of the flame and you are the flame, you are the waft of steam rising from the green tea and the hum of the wing of the hummingbird hovering over the blossom’s throat, you are the feet finding a new path, you are the fingers welcoming an old stone. You are the gist of a sentence, you are the stamen’s statement, you are the ripening peach, you are the lengthening glisten on a growing beach, you are the bean. Some days you are more than yesterday’s ache, yesterdays no, yesterday’s grief and loss, you are more than garbage, you are more than what was thrown out or ignored, you are more than the book left on the shelf for years, unread, unheralded, unblessed. Some days you are the cool chill on the neck of a sleeping deer, nestled in a place safe beneath a copse of trees, some days you are the copse of trees, you are the safety, some days you, even you, are the safe place. Your body is the safe place, your hands are the safe place, your mouth is the safe place, and your heart, as you know your heart, has always been the safe place.

Some days you are echo and dance, you are willpower and dive, you are forget and forgive, you are revenge, you are remember, you are never forget, you are anger and you are yes and you are power. You are the child curled up on the couch and the youth hiding in the closet and the young man walking down the street with a strut he thinks he doesn’t deserve but doesn’t know how to live without. You are the without. You are the strut. You are the do until die, you are the fake it until you make it, you know how to make it because you have made it here. Some days you are more than the account balance, you are more than the hours of life traded for money, you are more than the receipt, more than the transcript, more than the record, the data, the bits of information floating around in the world about you, you are their aggregation, and then you are more. You are the flicker of the squirrel tail, you are the faint hoot of the owl in the woods, you are the place of promise, you are the finger of regret and then you are the finger that scrapes through cake frosting and brings sweet to your mouth.

Some days you are learn and some days you are unlearn, you are forget, you are unwanting. You are the eyes looking across the water at distant islands, you are the eyes examining the feet of a newborn child, you are the hands that can safely hold a newborn child. Some days you are more than the loss, even though you might also still be the loss. You are the cup that holds the tea, you are the nurturance, you are the truth-telling, you are the sharpened pencil, you are the dance of pollen.

Sometimes you are more than electronic motes across a virtual dust screen, you are not the butterfly caught on the car grille, you are not the emptied rubbish can, you are not the messily erased chalkboard. Some days you are yawn and whisper and you rise from your bed like you deserve to be living. Some days the words come to you in the middle of the night and you meet them, on the page or in dreams. Some days you are the art that lives you. Some days you are the twist of the plot. Some days you are what hopes for escape and you are escape. Some days you are more than what begs in you to die, what begs in you to stop and please can’t we just stop and rest, some days you stop and rest. Some days you welcome the flow of your life, the rises and falls, the swells and thins, the ebbs and purls, the rhythms of you, the rhythms you are, the blood that follows the moon, the shallow dance, the circles, the spirals, the contours, the glisten, the blossom. You are the seed in the ground and the fingers that cover it with dirt with soil and the water that drenches and feeds.

Some days you cannot stop to think about the right word, you are the right word at the right time. Some days you know that you have always been the right word at the right time, even if someone couldn’t hear it, even if you were ignored or silenced, even if you couldn’t say the word out loud, you have always been the right word at the right time. Some days you are more than what enough holds in your belly. Some days you want what lives inside enough, the rest there, the nest, the promise, the comfort, the cradle in lap, the safe place, the knowing that you don’t have to hustle at the center of you, that you have earned the right to love yourself, that you have always been the love you deserve. That you are so far beyond ok that you can’t even see ok in your rear view mirror anymore, that you are the wind through your hair on the highway, convertible top down, sun shining on everything like a wish, you are the breeze through fingers stuck out of car windows and the ears of dogs flapping in joy. You are that joy. You are the small wishes, the littles delights that are the best ones, the bag of candy, the silly laughter, the eyes watching a dog sleep in a safe bed.

Some days you can trust that you are where you need to be, even if you know that you can’t stay there, even if there’s something in you that has to change or get out. And some days there is nothing in you that wants to escape your life anymore. Some days you have found a place where love is a blossom you can believe in, where kindness lives like breath, where your voice is a song written on the walls, written on the inside of every wrist and thigh, where your body is a delight of strength and comfort, where yours can be the body that someone wants to live in, some days that someone – can you believe it? – is you.

I woke up early, before the alarm, to lines of poemish things flowing in my head and I repeated the lines to myself like I do, thinking that I will remember even though I think I’ve never once remembered lines that came to me in the middle of the night that I don’t write down. but I woke up remembering anyway, not the lines themselves but the fact of them, the possibility of meeting the page this morning with imagination and flow, with something hopeful — San Francisco may not care but still I meet her at the corner and buy a batch of fresh Thai chilis at the farmer’s market, and the man with the light eyes didn’t remember my name, which made me happy for reasons I can’t quite explain. The man with the long hair and the question mark body was not around on Mission Street yesterday.

Something is growing inside me, something that wants answering.

I was thinking yesterday about how I used to memorize poems in German, back when I was in high school — excerpts from Goethe’s Faust — for competitions. (These were my earliest poetry recitals.) Sometimes I try to think of a way to say something, to communicate a thought, and the phrase pops up in German — unbidden, as the saying goes, like all that learning is still in me somewhere, the language, the vocabulary, the words, like they belong here, this language I loved all through junior high and high school, into college. I thought for sure I’d visit Germany, spend time there, maybe study. But then life took a different turn.

Maybe the trajectory we thought we’d take got bent and twisted into other directions. We grieve where we thought we’d get to, and by when; we grieve all that we thought we were supposed to be and do — but if I step back and look at what life has unfurled around me, there are days that I can take pleasure in what was and is. The anchor of me is still floating somewhere, not tethered, still free. There is still time to do so much of what the younger me wanted.

Some days there’s peace to be had in releasing the old dreams, even if we grieve as we let them fall from our hands — and some days we can pick them back up again, dust them off, look at them from a different angle. Yes, this fragment of life can still be mine. It’s not too late and you are not too old, Rilke said (in German it’s “Noch bist du nicht kalt, und es ist nicht zu spät”). It’s true — I want a lot (du seihst, ich will viel) — perhaps I want everything.

Some days we get to want everything, with the ache that longing brings, and the joy.

Du siehst, ich will viel
Rainer Maria Rilke

Du siehst, ich will viel.
Vielleicht will ich Alles:
das Dunkel jedes unendlichen Falles
und jedes Steigens lichtzitterndes Spiel.

Es leben so viele und wollen nichts,
und sind durch ihres leichten Gerichts
glatte Gefühle gefürstet.

Aber du freust dich jedes Gesichts,
das dient und dürstet.

Du freust dich Aller, die dich gebrauchen
wie ein Gerät.

Noch bist du nicht kalt, und es ist nicht zu spät,
in deine werdenden Tiefen zu tauchen,
wo sich das Leben ruhig verrät.

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything:
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.

So many live on and want nothing,
and are raised to the rank of prince
by the slippery ease of their light judgments.

But what you love to see are faces
that do work and feel thirst.

You love most of all those who need you
as they need a crowbar or a hoe.

You have not grown old, and it is not too late
to dive into your increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secret.

from The Book of the Hours
(translated by Robert Bly)

Thanks for all you’ve carried forward into today, all the wanting, all the hope, all the dreams. Thanks for allowing yourself to set some of it down. And thanks for picking some of it back up, giving yourself bits and swells of something you always wanted. Thanks for your words today. I mean it.

what if everything’s ok even though a bad thing’s happened?

Full color graffiti painted on a cement wall next to some stairs and a patch of grass; graffiti is a dog's face looking out at the viewerIt’s morning again on a Monday. I feel like an addict who’s had a week clean, proclaiming I did it! I’m back on the wagon! now that I managed to get up early today after not needing alarms on Sat or Sun. Just keep going, Jen.

This weekend was a fun and energetic Writing the Flood on Saturday, and then yesterday I had a day at home in the sun. Last night, E and I made dinner and played cribbage out on the deck while the sun sank down over the mountains,  and then we came downstairs and watched tv and then I let Sophie out back to go pee and she took off like a shot after a noise under the deck and while I was busy yelling frantically at her to come back, she was getting sprayed by a skunk. As soon as she came back around the corner of the deck, I raced inside and slammed the door shut behind me, trying to keep the smell out. I gathered up all the things we needed — dish soap, peroxide, baking soda, Nature’s Miracle Skunk Odor Remover — while E soothed Sophie through the closed door.

It’s an intimate thing, getting skunk smell off a dog, especially one you love. I went back outside, knelt down, and got my face down near Sophie, sniffing around her face, neck, ears, trying to locate just where the smell is worst. This time, I think Sophie mostly got it in the mouth, poor thing. There’s a whole precise formula for the peroxide-dish soap – baking soda skunk smell remover, but I wasn’t really up for looking up something on my phone. It’s a race against time when she’s been sprayed — I have the idea that the faster I get it off, the less bad it will be.

That’s true for most wounds or spills or difficulties of any kind — the sooner you deal with it, the less there will be that lingers for hours or days or years, the less likely you’ll have a permanent stain or scar, right?

I dumped the bottle of peroxide (it was maybe a half or three-fifths full), a bunch of baking soda, and a big squirt of dish soap into a container, put on the lid and shook the whole mixture up, then dumped it on the places where I thought were the most skunked. Most of the skunk removal solutions say not to get in the mouth or eyes, so it’s a tricky business, given that, in this case, I was trying to get the smell out of the fur around her mouth. I spread the solution around her muzzle and then hold her mouth closed gently so that she doesn’t lick it all up (or, frankly, so as to minimize the licking).

I read somewhere that water makes the skunk smell set, so I apply the Nature’s Miracle, and then rub a bunch of plain baking soda all over the parts I think might have skunk smell on them — at this point, it’s a little bit like throwing the whole pot of spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks, just throwing everything I’ve got at the problem and hoping something works. Sophie stands mostly still and shaking — less from the attack or the cool of the evening and more, I think, from my angry, frantic, panicked energy.

While she were sitting for a few minutes, after I got her all coated with various smell-removing pastes and enzymes, I thought, Why does this freak me out so much? Is here any reason to get so agitated, like something really bad has happened– or something really bad is about to happen, like I’m about to get in trouble if I don’t get this smell out right away and keep it out of the house. I’m 45 years old. Who’s going to get me in trouble now?

And though I’m sure it’s no fun getting sprayed — she almost always gets it in her eye! — I think the thing that’s the most traumatic for Sophie after she’s been skunked is my frenetic, stressed-out energy. Dogs are so sensitive — they pick up on our emotional changes, our illnesses and worries, they know when we are happy and they know when we are not and they respond accordingly. She wants to do what’s right, she wants to do what I want her to do, and she doesn’t know what that is, and here I am, taking in a loud voice that’s angry and scared and rubbing her hard and getting stuff in her eyes and then making her sleep in the garage after spraying her with cold water from the hose.

My point is, and maybe I’ve come to this realization before, there’s no ned to panic the way that I do. The fear is that there’s going to be a smell in the house, and my partner will get mad (I don’t mean my current partner in particular — I mean any partner, for this part of my trauma brain) and Sophie will have to go and I’ll still be in trouble for letting her bring smell in, for us having a dog at all, for ruining furniture or clothes or rug or whatever gets smell in it —

This is an old fear, and how can it not be connected to the memory of my first dog being sent away because my stepfather no longer liked the fact that, when he kept her in the basement for 8 or 10 hours a day, she’d pee and poop in there. How surprising. He didn’t like the fact that she was a dog, didn’t like the fact that she’s was a living being that needed care, certainly didn’t like the fact that she was my companion. So, he had me take her in to the pound and leave her there. I wrote about this memory again this weekend, coincidentally — it’s one of those parts of the story of my adolescence that will maybe never stop making me cry like it’s just happening, like it’s still happening, like some part of the young adult me is still standing in that dim room in front of the desk at the Omaha Humane Society, watching a volunteer in a uniform polo shirt walk my dog away from me, into the kennels, where she is almost certain to be killed in a week (they had a one-week deadline for dogs to be adopted or they’d be euthanized) because she’s eight years old and not well trained and has fatty tumors and has mostly been kept in the basement her whole life — potential new families were not, I was sure, going to see beyond all that to her sweet energy and her protectiveness and her loving nature.

As an adult who’s had other dogs, I know all the things I did wrong with her, but she and I were both living under the fist of this man who wanted everything to be awful for everyone, and so she had to die. And the guilt and shame live in my muscles and bones. I still cry at the thought of her waiting there for me, not understanding what was going on. She’d been kenneled before when we went out of town, and we had always come back. We had always come back. I torture myself with the idea of her waiting for me, that time, to come back, too. And then I didn’t.

Every time I leave the house now, or leave Sophie anywhere, I say, I’ll be back, just for this reason. Because of the time that I couldn’t come back, couldn’t go back. I say it for Sophie, but mostly, I say it for me. This time, I’ll be back.

So of course I am frantic when something goes wrong with the dog — some place inside still terrified that if we don’t do everything just right, we’ll be kicked out. She’ll be kicked out.

Meanwhile, last night, E was up in the garage, making a bed for Sophie out of towels, setting out food and water and a soft light and a little music on the radio, making a comfortable place for her to spend the night while the smell abated. Nothing about E’s energy was conveying anything but support and love.

What if we could do the deskunking without all the frantic spinning? What would that be like for Sophie, and for me, and for the memory of the dog I couldn’t save? What if everything’s ok even though a bad thing’s happened?

I’ll go out today and get her a new collar, because the other one is all skunk now. I’ll buy more Nature’s Miracle and peroxide and baking soda, just to be prepared for the next time. You just have to be prepared for the next time, ready for the thing that works. You just have to know it’s going to happen and then do your best to make sure that it doesn’t. That’s living as an adult, I guess, isn’t it? No more magical thinking, and no more living in terror of someone with all the power over you forcing you to be someone you’re not.

Thanks for being on the other side of this today. Thank you for reading, and for all the ways you are undoing, every day, bit by bit, the old lessons that you learned so hard, that you were taught so violently. Thank you for your patience with yourself, and for your generosity with those you love — animal and human both. Thank you, of course, for your words.

asking once was already too many times

Black-and-white sticker art of a young person on a tricycle with a small animal in the tricycle's basket and a bird nested on the young person's headGood morning, good morning. Is the sun up where you are yet? Here it’s all fog and hush.

There is still a cereal bowl in the bathroom. Don’t ask me what a cereal bowl is doing in the bathroom. Did someone eat cereal while going to the bathroom, or while walking into the bathroom or…? I can’t answer. What I can say is that it’s been there now for about 30 hours, 36, and in that time, more people than me have been into the bathroom and seen the bowl with a spoon resting inside it and bits of cereal stuck to the sides. But I seem to be the only person who cares about it. I am certainly the only person obsessing about it. I mentioned it yesterday morning — please have him bring his bowl from the bathroom to the kitchen to the dishwasher — and also last night — go get that bowl and bring it to the dishwasher, while you’re loading it up after dinner. But still the bowl still sits in the bathroom, on the sink next to the toilet.

It’s not the cereal bowl, understand. it’s what it represents.

This is the work of the trauma survivor stepparentish figure. There’s no name in our culture for what I am here. Not stepmom — that’s not what I want to be. I don’t want that word. I’m mom’s girlfriend. Just Jen. I have the feelings and fears and urges of someone who stands in what seems to be the role of a parent, but I don’t have the responsibility or the space to act on them— what I mean is, I am not the parent here. I am not ever the parent here.

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when the (white) mothers choose the abuser

Graffiti image of child spray painting the word MOMThis is a hard thing to write.

It’s been a painful few months. For you, too? I’ve been trying to get to the root of the heavy depression–despair, really–that I’ve been stuck in since November. Or even before November, but 11/9 is when it really took hold of all the insides of me, squeezed tight, shuttered me in with its bleak outlook: nothing is ever going to be all right again.

This, of course, is not true. So many of us have made it through impossibly painful times, and we have built up skills and tools for navigating the horrors of our world: governmental ignorance and abuse, a society that treats women and all folks of color like animals to be used and then discarded, that treats the earth like a garden to be plundered and then abandoned. My sweetheart last night reminded me of how scared we all were at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, when no one really knew what was happening–and then, once we did know, the folks in power alternately pretended like nothing was happening and tried to force us to be even more terrified of sex than we were already supposed to be. But we got through it together, with rage and sex and laughter and art and community.

It does seem like life under this Rapist-in-chief (and his so-called administration) will be worse than anything most of us have had to confront in this country, and that we’ll have to build a whole new set of tools for surviving, for helping one another survive. But that’s work we can do, all while resisting and struggling for justice and change.

But knowing this wasn’t getting to the root of my despair. I’ve been isolating mostly, trying to get some writing projects done, but also just wanting to be alone in my house with the blinds closed. Maybe it will all go away. A child’s way of thinking. Maybe when I open the blinds back up, maybe when I wake up tomorrow, everything will be better.

But things kept not being better when I woke up the next morning. I sat on the couch and watched the rains come in over San Francisco bay, and every loud, low plane I heard I was afraid would turn out to be the Rapist’s first bombing raids on too-liberal San Francisco. When would the attacks begin?

This is old fear. I realized my behavior bore a strong resemblance — this despair, this fear, this isolating — to the ways I acted in the first months after I broke away from my family, when I was in my early twenties. I was honestly terrified that my stepfather would make good on his oft-repeated threats to send someone to harm or kill me and those I loved; every noise at night the old New Hampshire farmhouse where I lived with my then-boyfriend was the spy-friend of les’ climbing up the outside wall, about to break through the bedroom window with his weapons: the one attached to his body and the ones clipped to his belt.

So there’s the ache and memory of this terror, arising now because this Rapist now installed in the highest office of the land talks and acts so much like the man who terrorized my sister and I through our adolescence. The demands for loyalty, the gas lighting, the abusive teasing, the Orwellian-Newspeak changes in message or tone, the racism, the elitism, and, of course, the misogyny and sexual violence that he downplays as teasing or helpful or consensual — these were all tactics my stepfather used as well. These are the tactics of the common abuser. So many of us talked about this before the election. We talked about The Rapist’s  abusive behavior toward his opponents during the primary, his horrific language about and threats toward various communities of color, his malignant teasing of a journalist with arthrogryposis, his predatory behavior toward Clinton during the debates. We talked about the difference between “locker-room talk” and bragging about sexual assault.

Folks who supported the Rapist didn’t want to hear it. Folks often prefer to be on the side of power, the side of the abuser. Don’t we who have been through abuse — as children or as adults — know this?

So here’s the other abuser’s tool the Rapist-in-Chief wielded, one my stepfather also brandished, of course: he convinced the mothers that he’s the one in the right. That they shouldn’t listen to their daughters, their children.

That they shouldn’t listen to reality.

A week or so ago, I realized that was the link to this deep grief I was feeling — a grief so big I couldn’t even cry about it. The link had to do with that 53% of white women who voted for this man, this now our Rapist-in-Chief: these women sided with the abuser.

Just like my own mother did.

I remember sitting on the futon in the bedroom of that old New Hampshire farmhouse, just a couple of months, I think, after I first told my stepfather that I wanted to end the “sexual part of our relationship.” He’d moved quickly to get me to agree that what I was really saying was that I wanted to break contact with my whole family; it was his way of further isolating me from my mother and my sister. He threatened to harm me if I contacted them, which I didn’t do for awhile, but then I changed my mind. I thought, it has to be that my mother just doesn’t know. She doesn’t know what he’s been doing to her daughters when she is away at work, or over the phone, or at his office.

(Never mind that there was plenty of awful that she did see, that happened right in front of her– that happened to her — that wasn’t enough to push her through her fear (or whatever else it was that kept her tied to him) and get her to leave.)

So I decided to call and tell her. I was terrified. I brought the phone over to the bed, sat crosslegged at the far end, and dialed her number at work. Their secretary transferred me to her office, but she was about to go into a therapy session with a client; could she call me in an hour?

I spent the hour trying not to throw up from fear. She told my stepfather about the call, and so they spent the hour (I found out later) talking with my sister about how to contain Jen’s most recent “attack” on the family. My mother called me back. I took a deep breath and asked whether she knew what her husband had been doing to us.

She said, Yes.

This took all the air out of my body.

“What do you mean, yes?”

She gave me specific acts, which, I found out later, my stepfather had told her to specify. She said, “He told me about it.” And, “He’s sorry. He knows he crossed a line.”

I didn’t have any words. What could I say to this? Here was my mother, calmly telling me that she knew her husband had been sexually abusing her daughters. She wasn’t raging. She wasn’t telling me that she’d hit him with a paperweight when he told her, then called the police and was leaving him immediately. She just said, “I know.”

I don’t remember now how the call ended. But I remember the enormous blanket of grief that overcame me. What could be done now? Wasn’t that my last possible attack on this man who’d destroyed my childhood and family? Hadn’t it been my belief, all through my adolescence, that if I could just get up the courage to tell my mother what was happening, she would be outraged, she would take our side finally, she would make it stop?

But it wasn’t true. She chose him. She would keep on choosing him for another year or so, until my sister broke contact with them, and even after that — until we called the police and they were both arrested.

She chose him over us.

This is the sorrow that is so big it doesn’t have anywhere to fit in my body. This is  the grief that is too big for tears. This is the heavy lead blanket of despair that has covered me since the release of that fucking tape from 2005 of our-now-Rapist-in-Chief bragging about what he could do to any woman he wanted, and I heard (white) women from around the country excusing him. White men, too, of course — isn’t that to be expected? (Think about what Brock Turner’s father said about his son’s rape; the men so very often stand up for their own.) But here I was, still the abused girl, hoping my mother would step up for me, us, the country, when she heard the truth.

But she didn’t. More than half of the white women in the country, again, chose the abuser over the abused, for reasons I will never quite be able to understand, even though I can articulate some of them: Security? Defiance? Fear? Having spent many years working in domestic violence prevention, I know the dangers of calling out the abused women who stay with abusers — I know how quick we as a society are to blame women for their own abuse. And, too, as an abused child of an abused woman, I know how painful it is to have your mother turn her back on you in favor of the man who has been hurting her as well as you.

So, it’s complicated, this work.

As a white woman who voted against him, who spoke out against him, who joined with others in calling out his abhorrent behavior, what can we say to these women, some of them mothers, to get them to choose their children, and the children of others, over the Rapist?

Of course, women of color, all folks of color, have their own deep, historical (and present!) grief about white women choosing, repeatedly, to side with violent white men.

What will these women tell their own daughters, their sons, their children, about how to behave in the world? What can they say that will ever contradict they message they sent when they explicitly chose this man? It’s likely that their daughters will have to do the work for them.

My mother eventually walked away from her second husband. She eventually got out from under him, when he was sent to prison. But we have never quite reconciled that moment when I told her what he’d done to me, to us, and she said, “I know,” like it was nothing. Even if she was speaking out of her own brainwashing, her own abuse, her own terror (and I do believe now that she was) — that doesn’t undo the wounding to our relationship, the way it unhooked something inside me from what Mother was supposed to mean, from the possibility of having a mother.

What do we do when the mothers seem not to care about the abuse of the fathers? Here’s how I got through those early years of grief — well, I drank a lot then, which I’m not doing anymore. Bad tv helped, and movies that made me laugh, and then movies that made me cry hard. Long walks helped. And speaking out helped: telling the truth to people who could hear me, receive my words, who helped me to understand that I was not crazy — that yes, in spite of how my mother had reacted, what my stepfather did was not ok. Not even a little bit at all ever.

And so my work is to join with all the voices around the country, around the world, committed to speaking up over and over and over: no matter what the (white) mothers and fathers are telling you, this Rapist-in-Chief’s behavior is not ok. We are not crazy to be terrified and furious. We are right to be outraged and to work for change.

Take 10 minutes if you have the chance today and write what you want to tell the women, tell the mothers, who keep on choosing abusers over their children’s or even their own well-being. This might be a letter to your own mother, a character’s mother, or mothers in general. We need all the words of all the people now. Please keep writing and speaking, and be so easy with you–which, I don’t know about you, but has been hard work for me recently, this being easy with myself, but I keep trying, returning to center. Gentle course correction is the name of the game these days, I think. And hot tea. And chocolate. 

Thank you, always and every time, for your words.

 

 

*I think I’ve mentioned in the blog that I refuse to use this man’s name, and intend to refer to him as The Rapist or Rapist-in-chief (I preferred Rapist-elect) for the next four years

allowing ourselves anticipation anyway

(A little talk of sexual violence and psychological control today — just know that ahead of time.)

~~ ~~ ~~

Hope, he said, it’s as insidious as bitterness.

If mother earth only knew how much we
loved one another she would creak, shudder,
 
and split like a macheted melon, releasing
the fiery ball of molten hope at her core.
– from “Hoffnung,” by Amy Gerstler

Good morning grey — feels like fall is coming, though I know we’re not nearly done with San Francisco Bay summer. I’m listening to my new favorite Pandora station (Ulrich Schnauss, how come nobody told me about him before?) and trying to stop fidgeting long enough to find my way down into the words. All the surfaces of me are stuttery this morning, flaking off into douse and drain, peeling away to remind me you need to do this thing don’t forget about that and underneath it all are the words, really? really?

I woke up calm this morning, calmer than I think I ought to be given that I’ve got  job interview today, given that my life is changing completely. Maybe we’ve been through this so many times before in our lives that my body has burnt out all its fuses and worn out its shocks. Ok, another total life change today. Gotcha – Right on. What’s for lunch? 

What do I want to say about this? When the rush comes, I’m still here under the blankets with the radio flowing into my headphones the volume turned all the way up, trying not to hear the world outside, trying to keep the monster voices at bay. When the rush comes, I’m still trying to make sure it passes me by: nobody here but us chickens. When the rush comes, I’m the one behind the rock — maybe if they don’t see me, I’ll be ok. What are the parts in us that keep hiding, so many long, long years after the violence has ended? I take a sip of soy-milk coffee, too dry even to cry today.

This is where this is going: On Monday I go to my first class, my first grad school class, my first class toward my MFA in Creative Writing, the fourth creative writing class I’ve taken in my life (the first one was in college, and the second was a friend’s private poetry seminar, and the third was a Saturday afternoon poetry writing class with Alison Luterman through the Writing Salon). Shouldn’t someone going for their MFA have taken a few more classes? But so much of the school we enter into as writers is unofficial, is self-driven, is all about the hours and days and years we plunk ourselves down in front of the notebook and just keep on writing. Oh, and all that reading — turns out that was school, too, and not just a way to dissociate from life or hide from responsibility (so there, innner critic).

Anyway, on Monday I go to my first class. Yesterday I got my student ID. I’ve wandered around campus, learning the back alleyways, the hidden-ish gardens, finding the places I will eventually want to haunt. Last Monday, after the grad student orientation, I came home electric with excitement, and stayed up until after 11 looking at my schedule, planning out the next three years’ coursework, trying to figure out how to take all the classes I want to take (creative writing classes and workshops, of course, sure, but then there are critical theory classes, and neurolinguistics, and composition instruction theory courses, and the one about psychoanalytic approaches to literature, and…). My body vibrated the way it does when we’re plugged into something that brings our whole self together, when we’re deeply curious and problem-solving, when anticipation and delight has fully taken over everything inside the skin.

And then the next morning that inside reverberation was gone, and as the week has gone on, my body has got quieter and quieter. This is old learning: too much eager charge, and the body shuts it down. Those places of electric possibility are muffled now, taken over by a throb of wait and see wait and see wait and see

That throb is the voice that remembers the old lessons, how every deep interest and enthusiastic curiosity was used by my stepfather against me, to use as leverage either to pull me more deeplyinto his madness or to force me into a state of complicity (you were excited about it too!) or hold over me, withhold access to, unless I did what I wanted. Or he just took it away. Interested in English and creative writing? He drove it into the ground, ridiculing anyone who would find themselves drawn to such a waste of time and talent. Excited about a boyfriend, a classmate I could actually talk to, a friend who might call to see if I wanted to hang out on the the weekend? He derided them, detailed their shortcomings and their intentions, then demanded that I not spend time with them anymore, following up repeatedly to make sure that I wasn’t disobeying him. Interested in theories of interface or database design? He found new research or books, sent them to me at college and then called me up, wanted to talk about them, waited until my voice was thick with inquisitive thrill, then ordered me to masturbate for him: that was the penance for falling into his trap, for allowing myself to be deeply drawn to anything. Anything I loved or let myself get attached to, idea or object or person, could and would be used against me. When would I learn?

This body learned hard, and when there’s too much excitement, too much of that shuddery, stuttery vibration that means we’re letting ourselves look forward to something too much, want something too much, she gets terrified and shuts us down. She says, just wait. Let’s see. Don’t get your hopes up — you never know what might happen. Maybe the financial aid will fall through. Maybe you didn’t register right for classes after all. Maybe the school is going to call you tomorrow with an embarrassed message: We’re so sorry, we made a mistake, we meant to admit this other Jen Cross, the one who is much smarter, much more interesting, much more accomplished. We apologize for any inconvenience to your life.

Does this voice ever go away, do these old lessons fade into the background of the body’s knowing? Surely we don’t forget all the survival strategies, the ones we use in the outside world and the ones at work always inside our hearts and psyches, but maybe eventually we can let ourselves trust something good.

Can you do that easily, trust something good? Of course I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Of course I am. There’s that part of me that’s leaning out with one hand to its ear, waiting for the bad thing to come up and take away what we have let ourselves slip some small tendrils around,what we have let ourselves get curioous and adoring of, what we have let ourselves want or love –it takes a long time for that part to be satisfied that we’re safe. (What am I saying? Has she ever been satisfied that we’re safe? She’s leaning out right now, listening for the sound of a jail cell opening, afraid he might be released without anyone telling us first…)

On Monday, school will begin, and I’ll be in class. There’s a flutter in my chest as I write that, a tightness and thrill that means the excited part hasn’t gone away completely — she’s still ready to froth us into a lather of oh my god I can’t believe I finally get to do this.

Oh my god, I can’t believe I finally get to do this.

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What are you not letting yourself, too afraid, too experienced to let yourself get excited about these days? What if you give yourself ten minutes to write in the voice of that elated, buzzy joy? Maybe it’s a small excitement — but we know, don’t we, that it’s the smallest excitements (or the things other people might deem small) that we deserve big celebration around: paid the bill on time, figured out a new route on public transportation, got yourself a space to breathe easy for a minute. Just 10 minutes — don’t worry, watcher parts, we’ll close the notebook when those ten minutes are done (unless the words and energy really take hold of us, and then we’ll just keep following the writing wherever it seems to want us to go).

Thank you for the ways you’re learning to let yourself anticipate anyway, be excited anyway, fill with those smoky threads of delight anyway, even though you know how bad the disappointment can be if they’re taken away.  thank you for the ways you keep on rebuilding that muscle of joy. Thank you, of course, for your words. 

 

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.

“tonight I clearly recall/every little bit”

male cardinal in a maple(?) tree(just a note: language of sexual trauma and regret in this post — be easy with you, ok?)

It’s late on a Sunday evening, and these are my morning pages, left till the end of this traveling day. Thunderstorms this evening: bolt lightening creasing across the sky, and claps of thunder so loud they stop the heart for a moment. Such a spectacular welcome.

Last night at this time I was contorting myself in an airplane seat — we were in the row right in front of the exit row so our seats didn’t recline, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to get my body comfortable enough to let itself fall asleep. I read and read, my eyes drooped, I yawned and the words on the pages blurred, but when I turned off the light and closed my eyes, my body held itself hostage. An old move. All I could do was adjust, adjust, adjust, adjust, but nothing worked, so I showed up at Logan a mess of sleep-deprivation and rage. Another old knowledge. Used to be, that’s how I’d arrive at Logan every time — returning to the East Coast after a visit home to Omaha while I was still in school, having spent a holiday or term break or several months living under my stepfather’s world order: no one ever got enough sleep, and the job of the female bodies in the house was to light around in a state of heightened anxiety and panic that was only released when he actually proposed to rape one of or when he exploded with rage. Then something in us could relax — we didn’t have to anticipate the worst anymore; it was already happening.

Anyway. I’m on vacation now, and I didn’t mean to get into all of that. In this case, some twenty-plus years later, waiting on in the muggy early morning thickness outside Logan for the shuttle to the rental car center, I felt my tension starting to slip out of my body. Sure, I was overtired. Sure, I was angry that the stewardess had woken me up to put my tray table up (and seat backs, she said by rote to those of us in our aisle, though we hadn’t had the luxury of even being able to lean back the 10 or 15° they allocate in coach these days) just when I’d finally fallen asleep. I was in Boston again, in that tension-strangled city that still had, for me, been a site of outlet and possibility back when I was in school (even though it was also a site of an assault so — heartbreaking, I guess, that it’s one of the few I actually have no memory of, even though I was well into my 20s when it happened).

Why am I talking about all this? Don’t you know: coming to the east coast is always coming into the overheated body of my past — the place where I hit bottom, tore my self free, and began the long work of choosing, day by day, to keep on living even though I couldn’t understand how or why I was going to make that happen. This was the place I earned I could live without family while also expecting myself to know how to build one. This was the place where I started swimming out from underwater and into the turbulent terrain of adulthood, having been given no tools except for the ability to flirt, lie, and act so well like everything was fine that nearly everyone I came into contact with me believe dit. And those who didn’t, well — they did their best to hold me anyway.

I wanted to talk about vacation, how happy I am to be back here, back in Maine, back at the ocean I still think of, in some place in my body, as home, the first ocean I ever met. And I am happy to be back here. No matter that being in New England also layers me thick with nostalgia and regret. On 95 up from Boston (and after the requisite first stop at Dunkin Donuts), we caught one of the college radio stations at the low end of the dial — the early morning dj played Patty Griffin’s “Every Little Bit” and one more time I was driving alone through a heavy Maine night, 29 years old, newly married and facing the possibility of parenthood, laid low by a crush on a woman much younger than me which had wrenched me open with exhilaration and despair. Of course I told my then-wife about my crush. I wanted to tell her everything — “liberty is the right not to lie,” remember?

How do you, if you live long enough to be able to look back at all the selves you’ve been, find a way to forgive yourself for being, though exactly who you needed to be in order to survive, an almost complete asshole?

I sang in the car this morning, my body remembering the words, filling my mouth with the lyrics before my conscious mind could remember them. I tried to turn the volume all the way up, to fill the car with bass and guitar and the tear of Girffith’s voice, but I’m not driving, and my sweetheart says, that’s too loud for me. Oh, right — I’m not driving alone, all the windows down, singing as so loud that my throat hurts, then reaching down to slam the rewind button so I can hear it again, again, again, hoarding myself, trying to get something I don’t — didn’t — have words for out of my body.

We are settled in here for two weeks on the Maine coast — vacation like I’ve never had before in my life: not for family, not for work, but for self and relationship and relax. We walk the beach, looking for sand dollars and abandoned hermit crab shells. How can I help  it — I look out at the waves, remember sitting on the shale at Two Lights with notebook and water bottle, trying to earn the right to be there in the middle of a weekday while my then wife sat at a desk, “consulting,” whatever that meant. I was meant to be freelancing, figuring out what it meant to be a writer. And I did write, some — then stopped, mesmerized by the waves, the thick greyblue, layering in sheets of pressure and energy up from the heartbeat of the earth to roll onto this coastline, endlessly.

I said recently to my ex-wife, I’m sorry I was such an asshole. She sort of laughed, said I was being hard on myself. We haven’t had yet the sort of lay-it-all-out argument we maybe need to have to let us say things like that to each other. But I can write more about that another time.

There are cardinals in Maine now — I can’t get used to it. Cardinals didn’t live here during the thirteen years I lived in New England. Cardinals belonged to the midwest, and were, for me, a harbinger of home. Cardinals — the males so bright red they look like flames searched up at the ttreetops, ends of branches, on powerless and telephone poles — were my companions when I was a girl. I learned to sing their songs, and talked with them on the way to and from grade school. They stayed in Nebraska when I left.

But now I come back to Maine, and find cardinals at the feeder in the yard across the street, find cardinal song pulsing through my back brain as I walk up from the beach. Cardinal song and waves all swimming together at the same time, how can that be? I know there’s environmental reason for this, something probably to do with global warming, but I can’t help also thinking it’s some sort of sign — something about letting this place of freedom and heartbreak be home anyway, to trust the place in my body that falls open when the plane touches down at BOS or PWN, that says, You made it back. You still get to be free.

peeling away what isn’t home

graffiti on cement sidewalk of smiling daisy growing out of a potGood morning, good morning.

It’s good to have a ritual, an opening, a way to say hello. I’m here in the quiet green room, the birds just percolating in the apple tree outside the windows, the sun spreading her thick, buttery smile over the top of the apartment building across the way. The garden is quiet (only the bees and cabbage moths awake), and home is figuring its way into my mouth once again.

Back from a few days on the other coast, in that place where I used to be from. I can’t call it home. I can’t lay any claim to it. Home is supposed to be the place where you were born, the place where your parents are, the place where there is a house you can return to.

How many of us actually have a home like that?

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NaBloPoMo #15: I get clean by writing it

Today’s post comes from the Fearless Words writing group — our prompt came from the group itself: how do we get clean?

How do you get clean? You know — inside? How do you begin to release that sense that you are dirty, soiled, smeared with someone else’s stain?

We took about 8 minutes — and this is what came for me (with only small edits):

I get clean by writing it. I take the stories out of my body and let the page hold them, too. And I get clean by crying. So many buckets and buckets of ears, a sea full. a world full. I cry because crying is what brings the body back to itself. Cry and dance and sweat and move the damp through the body’s pores and the toxins are flooded out. They say that every seven years, every one of the body’s cells has replaced itself. One day I realized that this means that he has never touched the skin I’m in now. I have sloughed and shed the places he put his body against or into mine — I have sloughed him. I get clean by getting messy, by telling the truth, surrounding myself with a love that never thought me dirty in the first place.

claiming what we know and what we don’t yet know

Good morning good morning — where I am right now, the sun is rising slow behind a scrim of Atlantic fog, and my toes are readying themselves for the day’s first kiss from the sea. What in you is beginning to percolate already on this day?
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Those who have something to say about what it means to be A Writer say we should write what we know. But what if what we don’t know what we know? What if what we know is denial and silence? What if what we know is discord, the underside of words, the words squelched, torn from our throats? How do we write what was unspeakable, never meant to be spoken, words that people who love us have shown us they are unwilling to hear and/or acknowledge that we have spoken? We come to understand that our words are unhearable, unknowable.

What happens when we write in an unhearable language — and then, one day, someone not only hears, but responds to what we have said? This is what happens at Write Whole, and other Writing Ourselves Whole writing groups. We write these things and share them in a room of peer survivors who nod: they hear us. They witness. They understand.

It’s the Velveteen Rabbit, it’s Pinocchio: it’s as though we materialized into visibility when our words are heard, witnessed, acknowledged, responded to. Like the Cheshire Cat re-emerging, we may feel that more of our very selves have become present in this room full of wise writers.

We need a language – a shared language, which allows for a shared experience – for what it’s like not to know what one’s own body has done or been put through. So I invite you to write what you don’t know. Write what you think or imagine or wonder. Write your certainties and your fears. Write what unknowing feels like. Write the fuzziness and numbness. Write the cycling of emotions. Write exactly what happened – write what you know happened and write what you don’t know happened. Write the uncertain as if you were absolutely clear, and then write it full of questions and confusion. Write it grammatically incorrect, as it exists within your body and memory: confusing, fragmented, broken, metaphorical, poetic.

This is a language of trauma. This is the real world’s song. It has its own grammars and choruses. Repeat what bears repeating, and then repeat the rest. Follow your instinct. Let the pen guide you.

Use all the tools at your disposal. Write it differently. Write yourself fighting back, then write yourself fighting back differently or not fighting back at all. Write someone walking in. Write from the point of view of the bed, the couch, the closet, the garage floor, the basement walls, the kitchen table, the office chair – the inanimate witnesses to your experience. If someone were walking by, what would they have seen? Write it inside out. Every different telling brings forth new details, new remembering, and new art.

Then: give yourself some good self-care: write about the birdsong in the summer birch tree, the smell of sea salt roses, the deep blue of the thin autumn sky. Or take yourself for ice cream or go for a run or have a long cry or a swim. When you write into trauma, your body will fill up with memory and emotion. Consider how you want to take care of yourself after. I take long walks, or cry into the notebook, or watch silly sitcoms. I go for long drives, roll the windows down, turn the radio up and sing loud. I browse bookstores, play ball with the puppy, make myself a cup of strong green tea. There are ways to thank your body for this effort of recollection and creation, for tangling itself backup in the old (sometimes not so old) memories, to communicate to your psyche: I will take care of us through this process of reclaiming and restorying. I will collaborate with you in the place of loving this good self.

We get all the words. We get to write everything. We get to not be ok and be absolutely ok. We get to take this work slowly – write for ten minutes, or five: sometimes that is more than enough. This is not work we should try to rush through. Nor can we respect positive results if we expect to be able to write it all down and be done with it in one sitting. We are building a relationship with our deep inner self, our surviving self, our material, our memory, our creative genius. We are meeting our own idioms, a linguistics of loss and determination, a semantics of our own particular triumph. We write something that completely contradicts what we wrote yesterday, and then we keep writing until we understand that we have not contradicted, we simply exist in multitudes – we are Whitman’s heirs.

We claim every word that could fit into any mouth. Maybe we do this every day, or maybe once a week, in a community of peers who can hold the stories we are finding the words for.

We are not trauma but we know the words for it. We know how to speak to it. We know how to reach inside of it. We know how to recognize its underseams. We write until we are bored with the trauma. We repeat ourselves, think we are all surface and then we stumble over a scent and we describe it and that leads in to a story that tapes into a crater of new writing, a crater of new understanding.

Keep writing. You deserve this knowing and unknowing — and we need your language in order to make the story whole.