Tag Archives: trauma aftermath

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.

 

She held out the song of the long view

Good morning! How is the sun peeling through the night’s succor where you are? Did you celebrate the Summer Solstice this weekend? Have you noticed that the days are shorter now?

This weekend I had the great pleasure of participating in A Festival of Writing, sponsored by AWA West and the Pacific School of Religion (Pat and Peter Schneider’s alma mater). I facilitated two writing sessions (one focused on writing about sex, and the other a general topic writing session, like Writing the Flood). What a gift it was to spend a day connecting with new writers and my AWA community here in the greater Bay Area. At the end of the day, we got to gather with Pat (via the wonders of technology), who shared with us about the seasons of a writer’s life and read from her new book How the Light Gets In: Writing As A Spiritual Practice.

In the second writing session, I started us off with a collection of images that I scattered over the table; we each chose an image or two, and wrote from those. The image that spoke to me was one that showed a bird flying over barbed wire, and this was the writing that came from the prompt:

She was the bird who called to us. She was the hoarse angel, she was the chemical peel,she was the undeviled thing, the pickling spice, the debonair lounge of legs. She wrote us around the corner and asked us to find names for all our calipers and rusted bolts, the parts jostling and broken. For the places where we had come undone, she strung twine through the body of a needle and knitted our wounds while we ached into the absence of memory. She untaped our memory from its hiding places. She tapped around our bodies, listening for the hollow places, and it was there that she began to puncture and crease, pushing her nails into the thin membrane of our security, waiting for the sorrow in us to be revealed. She strung us over, called to us from beyond the points of the barbed wire that kept us hemmed in, that we had strung around ourselves, that we tightened and reknotted every year, weeping and weeping about our confinement. She hovered above us, she called in sharp songs and pierced anguish, she fed us back what we had practiced ignoring.

We thought our lives were complete, that recovery had an end date, that locked jaws and noses to the grindstone were the same as serenity, that slivers of joy were all we could hope to have shiver our bodies awake, and those only to surprise us every so often. She held out the song of the long view — she whisked her wings before us and revealed plains of cavernous pleasure, faces pumaced with laughter, days, weeks, even, in which our spirits would not be pockmarked by history, stretches of time in which we would not only live within the carapace of loss. And when we reached for those possibilities, she trapped our wrists in sharp taloned grasp, she favored us with her ashen gaze, she said: There is no easy way to this place I have shown you — my beautiful, you have to go through.

And in her broad brown wings, we saw the years of rage and sorrow, we saw the tears crease down our cheeks, we saw ourselves remembering what we had trained ourselves to forget. Our bodies went limp with terror, or our bodies stiffened, every tendon taught: we did not want to walk this way. We had survived; wasn’t that enough? But her body clothed itself in the finery of joy before us, and though we didn’t know enough to say, We want what you have, still we felt something enter our bones: the only way through the history is to remember and move forward anyway.

So we went through, and little by little, one tender and broken and strong step at a time, we felt the pinfeathers pierce our shoulders, we felt our own wings begin to reemerge.

Let your hunger take its own path

The second prompt I offered to last night’s Write Whole writers was to scatter over the carpet a selection of images that were erotic, sensual, sensuous — and while the writers examined them, I shared the following two quotes:

I believe in the erotic and I believe in it as an enlightening force within our lives as women. I have become clearer about the distinctions between the erotic and other apparently similar forces. We tend to think of the erotic as an easy, tantalizing sexual arousal. I speak of the erotic as the deepest life force, a force which moves us toward living in a fundamental way. And when I say living I mean it as that force which moves us toward what will accomplish real positive change.Audre Lorde

Truly, we know that we cannot really subsist on little sips of life. The wild force in a woman’s soul demands that she have access to it all. ~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés

This was my response to the prompt:

There is a dog barking in another room. The sun is setting and the birds have abandoned the body of her longing. She feels around in the places where hunger careened through her and she hears echoes of old want like a faint and remembered percolation. She knows desire will blossom her body again, burst her forward, fill her with power. Today she is fitted with a different direction for those energies. She sits in an empty field, surrounded by cowsong, and the scent of the sea settles in her pores. She lives into the endbloom of the sun, the rustle of live oak leaves, the butterfly making its yellow way from wildflower to wildflower. Someone said, Let your hunger take its own path. She doesn’t need distance but she does need space. She unfolds her sex in a red handkerchief, lays it brown on the new grass, she examines the old scars and the places that never healed right. She touches with gentle fingers, offers this extravagant plainness up to the breeze. She is surrounded by farm animals: cow, sheep, goat — each one puffs her with the heat of its forgiveness. Each one walks away slow and indifferent, leaving her just another creature. She takes toll, she whispers and weeps, she wants more. She doesn’t see what might have been — that doesn’t live in her anymore.

Overhead, the sky is dark blue, the clouds wisp hazy into fog. Hers is a longing of emergence. Her hunger is utilitarian: scratched at the ankles and mosquito-bitten. Her desire fits folded into your back pocket, wipes sweat from your forehead, eats its fill at dinner, sits quiet with a book and candle once the supper’s been cleared. Yes, there will be eruptions, that grasping that pulls now out of a lover’s mouth — but she rests easy with patience when the urgency isn’t singeing her throat: It’s ok, the body says. Replenishment takes its own time. Need will push you to full-lipped and grunting again soon enough. For now, sit back in your rocking chair. Open up the space that will get filled up between you. Allow an absence that can tether itself to want. Practice holding Yes in your mouth again: you don’t have to say it or swallow — you can just let it rest on your tongue. This patience is an old road. The hollows are the trust where your skin begins. The old names can slough away along with your carapace of fear. You can let your soft belly be its own embrace. You can encompass a stronger beauty. You can believe in the ache that sorrows at the corners of your eyes, and you can weep for this strange dance you tango with your sex.

The body rubs itself into a ball, bears its back to the world, creates a shallow where plenty can begin to pool again. She reads poems and the oldest stories while she waits for the body’s rebuilding. She drinks tea and feeds herself slices of morning. She holds tight to the nourishing quiet within her, trusting the nebula in formation, trusting all that she’s learned about the regeneration of her own swollen stars.

our own definition of enough

Last night I offered Monica McIntyre’s song “Like A Lover” as a prompt to the Write Whole writers — if you haven’t met this woman’s amazing music, I invite you to do so now. Anyway, after rambling a bit in the notebook, this is what I dropped down into:

The singer says, “like a lover” – how would we talk to, treat ourselves, if we acted like our own lovers? What would it look like if we attended so deeply and gently and assiduously to our needs and desires? Drop in – I say into my own heart: I need space and deep quiet for my morning writing time. I say into my own heart: I am gladdest when I have spent some time every day with my fingers in soil, and in the preparation of food. I say into my heart: my body is all right. She is whole and strong, round just where she needs, and with a true a tremendous capacity for delight. I say into my own skin: you are whole. I say into my belly: you deserve to unknot. I say into my arms: you deserve to hold what keeps you whole. I say in-between my ears: you deserve space to unravel and meander. You deserve to weep and sing. You deserve the exhaustion of deep release. You deserve to come to conclusions, re-think, reconsider, change, unknow, decide for sure, and then do it all over again. You deserve to turn off the noise. You deserve poems that sing you awake. You deserve not to keep up with the Joneses. You deserve your own definition of enough.

I say into my self: You deserve to trust what you know about your own heart. You deserve the exact sort of pleasure your body prefers. You deserve to know what it’s like to be surprised by orgasm. You deserve as many orgasms as you want, no matter how long they take. You deserve to own the life you’ve crafted for yourself. You deserve to have survived. You deserve to treat yourself with the generosity and spaciousness you offer others. You deserve to know peace. You deserve to sleep well. You deserve to ask for what you want most even when you can’t figure away all by yourself to make it happen – you deserve to release that ask into a space where someone or something has resources greater than your single strong will and your single curious mind, and can come up with ideas you never could have imagined. You deserve to live in a state of curiosity and wonder. You deserve to live unafraid. You deserve to trust that he will never come after you. You deserve to know how to protect yourself. You deserve to trust that your beloved’s admiration is not clean enough for a demand, but simply a clarity of feeling: a delight and wonder at your precise you-ness.

You deserve to hold onto a thread of belief that this world can change, that one day all children will sleep safe in their beds, secure and well-fed and loved and treated with clean kindness and good boundaries that they can trust every day of their lives. You are not naive for believing this. Your belief – along with others’ – holds open the space and possibility for this transformation, even in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. Especially in the face of all this evidence. You deserve to believe that we can all be free –

they bite down hard and don’t let go easy

Good morning good morning. Outside my window right now it is still grey with morning clouds. I’ve got hot water with lemon and honey, and I am trying to remember how to breathe. I am trying to remember the point of this process. I am trying to remember how my limbs and lungs learned to function. I am trying to recalibrate after a deeply triggering experience and a week in the throes of — not flashback, exactly, but a deep and embodied re-memorying of what it was like to be a 22-year-old person trying to get away from a man who had brainwashed and abused her, and terrified for her life.

Last weekend, at the Survivorship conference, I had occasion to learn some new information about the man who sexually abused me, and in the aftermath, I have not been ok. I crashed. I have been sad and scared and triggered. I have been hopeless. (And yet, I want to say that the conference was, overall, a powerful and good experience for me, and I am so grateful to have been able to participate!)

Part of the crash was trigger, and part of the crash was a feeling of hopelessness, of sheer powerlessness to change any of the conditions that allow kids to continue to be harmed by the people who are supposed to care for and guide them. I don’t like to write here when I am in that place of hopelessness — I prefer to offer a sense of possibility and hope, even if it’s thin and fragile; I know how easy it can be to fall into despair, and I don’t want to be a part of that for anyone else. But this week, most of what I felt was despair: people do terrible things to children (and to other adults) and most of those who do will never be held accountable for their actions. Other adults will protect them. Our system of government will protect them. Even we who were abused will protect them — because we love them, because we forget, because we are afraid for our lives and the lives of others we love. This week it feels like violence and desecration are a part of the human constitution — how can we undo what people with the power  and money fight so violently and tenaciously to continue to have access to?

So this week I’ve had to go slow. I’ve been offline a lot, in the quiet, reading and thinking and remembering. My inclination during these triggered times is to hide deep in a hole, get as far away from everyone and everything as I can, which generally leaves me feeling lonely and isolated — and so, as I was able, I reached out, talked to beloveds, spent time around humans who I know are kind and generous and loving. I baked. I worked in the garden. I spent time cuddling a pup. Radical self care was hard work this week.

This is what I wrote on Monday, during our Write Whole group — the prompt I used at the beginning was a quote from Carson McCullers:

“All we can do is go around telling the truth.” I want that to be enough. Today I do not feel hopeful even though I feel that hope is meant to be my job, my vocation. Today I know that telling the truth can help an individual or damn her to confinement when she tells a story that people more powerful than her want squashed. We have to be inside out and sideways in our telling. This isn’t what I want to say. What I really want to say is that I am disheartened by humankind today. I know that people, that survivors, are resilient, that if we live through horror we usually are able to heal, if given the chance, and I also believe that in my lifetime, and for generations beyond my death, there will be no end to the destruction of children in the service of adult’s desires. I want to believe that there can be a change. I want to believe we can set aside our bloodthirst. I want to believe that we can be a different species— but children have been violated by adults since, it would seem, the beginning of time. What makes me think we could end such an entrenched practice and entitlement with just a few years’ outcry and naming?

I hear that President Obama wants to end rape on college campuses — how can that not be commendable? He forms a task force, and he names the issues in his speeches, and he encourages more study and research on the problem. Meanwhile, girls are still being assaulted at parties and in dorms by “friends” and classmates. Is it because boys need to be educated? Is it because we truly believe that the boys involved believe that their behavior isn’t wrong? How could we possibly believe that? It’s because they know their actions are normal and culturally acceptable — that this is part of what they get access to by virtue of being male. Mr. President, can we get a task force to undo that sense of entitlement? And while you’re at it, can we decommission the military and undo federal recognition for the catholic church while we task force the institutional sexual violence out of those sanatoria as well? Don’t you know that ending sexual violence on campus means changing the way that we as a culture make boys and make girls? That it means either arming the girls or actually training boys to be different kinds of people? How is your task force going to accomplish that,when it’s almost certain that there are persons on the very committee who will decry the heinous treatment of girls and promise to stop at nothing to root out this evil force veining its way through our campuses, and will then go home to a child bent over their homework, hiding in their room, crossing their fingers that tonight he won’t demand to give them “just a back-rub” that they know will end in something worse?

Today I am not optimistic, even though I do know that things can change. I know that men can change. I know that women can change. I know we are fighting a terrible battle when we attempt to take children’s bodies out from between the teeth of people who have been groomed to believe they are entitled to them — they bite down hard and don’t let go easy. I need some hope today. I need help from other eyes and minds, to be reminded what is possible.

Let’s be as easy with ourselves as possible today, ok? This work of recovery and lasting change is long and we need to sustain ourselves. Today I send you adoration and gratitude, and I take myself to the seaside for succor. Thank you for your breath and your stories. Thank you for your words.

These days I take what comes and do not push in

peacockThese Days

whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
dangle

And the dirt

Just to make clear
where they come from

Charles Olson

These days I sleep through my writing time. The words float up like dreams. These days, the stories I want to tell lie quiet at the bottom of a brook among the smooth river stones, rustling gently against one another in the current, the clear water burbling overhead, nothing churned up, nothing muddied or murky, nothing alarmed. These days, I sit by the side of the water, knees pulled up to my chest, watching the little minnows swim by. I listen to the electric sound of the forest songbirds high up in the pine trees. There are dogwoods and azalea in full springtime bloom. Somewhere into the deeper shadows, squirrels search for the acorns they planted last fall. Somewhere, the deer and bear dream their daytime dreams. Somewhere, the man who put his haunting into my chest when I was just a little girl does whatever men in prison do. The moss and loam and leaf mould makes a soft cushion. Somewhere, there’s other work to be done. Inside, there are major and minor tightnesses. Inside, the old drowse of loss pulls at the chains in my chest. Inside, I worry that I should be making something more of this life. I watch the water push over rocks and boulders. I watch the sheer persistence of the water carve out its place in this woods. I watch the dragonfly dip and dive, searching out mosquitoes and gnats. I watch the sunlight pulse in streams down through the fir boughs and the new spring green leaves. I do not stir the streambed with a stick. I do not churn up the stones, searching for what lies beneath. I accept this moment of clear and calm as long overdue. I understand that the work is not done. These days I take what comes and do not push in, do not dig and claw at the surface of things to find the underneath face. These days I accept that bird song, the morning sun on my bare toes, the small splashes that reach for my fingers as I hover them just over the water’s belly, breathing deep and releasing.

Radical self care as upheaval (part 3) – negotiating depression and its aftermath

(In this series of posts about radical self care and/through major life change, I am finally taking some time to find the words for what I’ve been dealing with over the last month, since the birth of my nephew. I am thinking about how and why we choose to survive and how much effort is involved, how and why we choose to take care of ourselves, and how to allow ourselves to walk with all that life throws at us with even a modicum of grace and celebration.)

(Just a heads-up: there’s some talk in this post about negotiating feelings of suicidality — be easy with yourselves and only read what you want to read, ok?)

And then I slid into a pretty serious depression. I don’t know how much I want to say about that here, except that it was both hormonal and historical — it grew out of the long grief I held about my own loss of motherhood, it grew out of shame I felt around my failures as a writer and facilitator and woman, it grew out of sorrow at how long it took for either my sister or I to become parents — all the work we had to do just to survive long enough for our soul’s to heal enough that we could imagine cradling another’s spirit with any determination or self-assurance, how unfair what our stepfather did was. It seems an understatement: unfair. Of course it is. And it’s true.

And then, too, I was dealing with hormonal shifts, a depression that I fall into for about two weeks a month, every month. I cried and cried, every day, for two weeks. I fell deeper and deeper into this depression, so far in that I started to get scared — what was the point of anything, anyway? What difference would it really make if my nephew didn’t have this aunt? It’s not like he would remember me — and I didn’t have anything really to pass on to him anyway, did I? Wasn’t everyone showing me that — the fact that I couldn’t get anyone to sign up for my writing groups meant that I didn’t really have anything to share. (I offer these as examples of what’s going on for me when I’m thick in the throes of depression — not because I really believe that they’re true or because I need them to be negated here.) The scary voice in me that sounds like despair and loss and nihilism took over; I couldn’t self-talk my way out of its arguments, I wasn’t telling anyone what I was going through, and I wasn’t doing the sort of writing that will often help me notice and shift this sort of struggle.

I didn’t see how it could ever be possible for me to live the sort of life I’d always imagined sharing with a child in some way: a life that looked an awful lot like the one I had as a very little girl living in the country in Nebraska (and that I tried to recreate in Maine) — a small life in a house with a big garden; bread rising in the kitchen; sprouts growing on the kitchen window; herbs drying from the rafters; pantry filled with jars of flours, seeds, nuts, spices; long walks through the garden and the surrounding fields or woods, talking about the plants that grew and what work they did in the earth, what work they did in our bodies;  hours every day spent in physical labor; hours spent writing; hours spent walking and reading — I imagined being an adult who knew about the earth, about our environment, and getting to pass on that learning to the child/ren in my life. And then that all fell apart, and I came to the city, and I would never have a child anyway, so what difference would it make if I never learned the names or the gifts of the plants that grew in this new place I now inhabited? What difference would it make if I never lived that long-held dream? I thought about how I wouldn’t ever really be free from what I’d been through, how it would always be with me, and how I couldn’t protect this new child from all the evils this world has to offer.

I knew that the depression was hormonal, but that knowing doesn’t really help — you can’t think your way out of depression, can you? In fact, knowing sometimes makes it worse; I’m thinking to myself, Jesus, pull it together, this is just hormones. And then, because I still feed bad, I become further depressed that I can’t talk my way, can’t rationalize my way, out of this feeling, can’t (at least, all alone) cognitively-behaviorize my way back to wellness.

I put on as good a face as I could for those around me, even when I talked, finally, about how sad and low I was feeling. And when I began to bleed, and the depression abated, I felt relief — and I felt really scared. What if that low came back? I thought about folks who survive horrors, who live a long time with the aftermath, and then kill themselves after twenty or so years after, who looked like they made it, and then suddenly got taken down by history, or by the long and awful work of living in the aftermath of what they’d survived.

I’m talking about this here for a reason: because so many of us struggle with depression, with these voices inside telling us that we’re worthless and that nothing will ever get better, and yet we feel profoundly isolated when we’re in the grip of this feeling. It seems like no one will understand us, no one will want to hear what we’re feeling, no one else has felt as bad as we are feeling. I want to undermine this experience of isolation. I want you to know you’re not alone in feeling these things, just as I’m reminded that I’m not alone whenever I talk to anyone else about depression.

I didn’t bounce into buoyancy, as I often do when the hormones shift. I felt better, but I also felt subdued — I needed help. I didn’t want the depression to fall on me like that again. Because I can’t really afford to go to an herbalist or a physician right now, I went to the internet, and found some ideas for dietary changes and supplements that folks use to mitigate the intensity of PMS or PMDD, and I am trying those now. Suddenly, I’m one of those people with a handful of pills they swallow every morning (thanks to an amazon gift certificate I got for my birthday). Suddenly I am thinking again (link here) about how to prioritize my own wellness. Suddenly I am wondering what it would look like to really take care of myself first, to put my health and wellness at the top of my priority list. Suddenly I am looking at food differently — as something that can support not just my physical but also my mental wellness, or something that can cause me mental and psychic harm.

The truth is, I don’t want to die. The truth is, I still have a lot of living and healing I want to do. The truth is, I am scared enough by how I felt last month — at a time when I should have been as happy as I have ever been in my whole life — to make some radical changes in my living.

Why does it have to hit me so hard before I decide it’s acceptable to concentrate on my own wellness, that I deserve help as much as those around me do?

(Tomorrow’s post: Walking along the Möbius of  major life transitions, and allowing ourselves to feel turned inside out as we do so.)

Radical self care as upheaval (part 2) – finding the time, finding the words

(In this series of posts about radical self care and/through major life change, I am finally taking some time to find the words for what I’ve been dealing with over the last month, since the birth of my nephew. I am thinking about how and why we choose to survive and how much effort is involved, how and why we choose to take care of ourselves, and how to allow ourselves to walk with all that life throws at us with even a modicum of grace and celebration.)

As someone who has again allowed herself to get overly busy, where did I suddenly get the time to spend a full day or two in the south bay with family? Me, who rarely feels she has time to see friends, who is overwhelmed with all that’s involved in running a business alone, who can’t find the time to finish the books she’s been working on for years — suddenly there was time in my week to (want to!) run someone else’s errands, wash someone else’s dishes, clean someone else’s catbox. (Of course, it goes without saying that there was also time to hold someone else’s brand new baby — but everyone can understand that, right?)

It helped that almost none of my winter workshops filled to baseline capacity, and so most had to be cancelled — the financial panic that caused was mitigated by the fact that I had more time to spend with this family that has recently come to occupy actual, physical space in my everyday life.

It also helped that I stopped writing almost completely during the two weeks after the baby’s birth — that opened up a lot of time as well. I couldn’t even imagine sitting down in front of the notebook (not to mention this blog) and trying to find language for what I had experienced and witnessed, or what my sister had displayed — a capacity and resilience and determination that she pulled up from somewhere in the earth, drew into her body, and used to deliver this child. She had a coterie of supporters around her, a swaddle of women holding her as she pushed and rested, and a husband who kept himself in front of her eyes at every moment, reminding her that she could do this, carrying as much as he could with her, encouraging her to rest, to take it one step, one breath at a time. There were no words for what it meant that I could be a safe person for her there in this setting, that she trusted me to be there, given our history, given the history of our bodies, given what our bodies meant for and to each other.

At one point, midway through her laboring, when she was taking one of those sudden naps that laboring women are able to take — so exhausted from the work they do during the contractions that they are able to fall immediately to sleep when the pain subsides and they are given a reprieve — I burst into tears. I was sitting next to my sister, witnessing this majestic capacity, so grateful that she had been able to bring herself to this place in her healing and struggle that she could give herself this gift, this experience and life she’d always wanted: to have a child, to become a mother.

I was remembering who we used to be, I was remembering the girl who couldn’t see herself as worth any love, I was thinking about all the work she’d done over the previous decade to allow herself to get here. I was thinking about how grateful I was that she survived. I was in awe of what she was doing. I had all of our history in my body in that moment, and I couldn’t keep it in anymore and so I sobbed, as quietly as I could, sitting beside her, not at all sure how I could be of use to someone who had the ability to walk with the kind of pain she was enduring. The doula came over to be and comforted me. She thought I was sad about the pain my sister was enduring in this moment. She said, This is just what women can do — what our bodies are capable of. I couldn’t say a thing. I didn’t want the past to be voiced in that room. I could not say, I am crying because I am so grateful she lived long enough to get here — that we both did. I let the doula hug me, and was thankful for her generosity in that moment, even though she didn’t know everything that filled the room around and underneath us.

And I certainly couldn’t even begin to find words to describe what that new human looked like when he slid from my sister’s body, what he sounded like when he first made his cry to this side of the world, what his eyes did when they met air instead of fluid, what he looked like on my sister’s chest. so close to her face and her husband’s face, their looks of delight — these words don’t even come close to capturing the experience, offering it back to them, offering it back to you.

I had a journal I’d intended to keep for my nephew, writings from each day of the first months of his new life. I wrote in it before he was born, and haven’t returned to it. Instead of writing about this new life we were all circling around and inhabiting, I was living it. I didn’t want to pull away and examine what was going on. I wanted to be in the mix. I wanted to be there for every minute of his breathing, and I couldn’t be. I’m not his parent — I don’t live with him; I will never be the primary person in his life — but I could do as much as possible. I’ve put hundreds of miles on my odometer so that I can put myself in that room, with the sister who is my heartbeat, and this new child who now lives inside the breath that my sister and I share.

(In tomorrow’s post: navigating deep depression in the aftermath of a radical life change.)

Day 1: It’s Writing Ourselves Whole Month…

Assata's Affirmation

Oakland graffiti of Assata’s Affirmation

I believe in living.
I believe in the spectrum
of Beta days and Gamma people.
I believe in sunshine.
In windmills and waterfalls,
tricycles and rocking chairs.
And i believe that seeds grow into sprouts.
And sprouts grow into trees.
I believe in the magic of the hands.
And in the wisdom of the eyes.
I believe in rain and tears.
And in the blood of infinity.

I believe in life.

from “Affirmation,” by Assata Shakur

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April 1 marks the beginning of both Sexual Assault Awareness Month and National Poetry Month, and so is also the beginning of what I think of as Writing Ourselves Whole month. (What should our Twitter hashtag be? I like #WriOursWhoMo, but #WOWM might be a little easier to remember.) My intention for this month is to blog every day, to find my way back into a morning writing practice, and to begin to find some words for what I’ve been experiencing since the birth of my nephew three weeks ago.

I have written some, here on the blog, about my relationship with my sisterabout our past, and about our struggle to get to a new and more-healed place now.

I am without words for the transition we find ourselves going through. I need poetry –the practice and the manifestation — now more than ever.

I have no words, yet — I mean, I am trying to find my way back into the place where I could possibly find words for the fact that my sister allowed/wanted/asked me to be in the room with her while she brought her son from the place inside her body to the place outside her body. I don’t have words for that yet. I don’t have words for how grateful I am that our bodies can safely inhabit the same space these days. I don’t have words for how in awe of her I am, having watched her labor around and deliver this child, and watching her unfold gorgeously into her mother-self.

Maybe WriOursWhoMo can help me find these words. This is a month for the poetry of what hasn’t yet been spoken, what we’re not supposed to say, what pieces of our experiences are ready to find themselves into language. This is a month to tap into the language of poetry — our own and others’ — in order to express what has, up to now, been unexpressible.

Audre Lorde, in her essay “Poetry is not a Luxury,” writes, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

So this will be a month of poems and invitations. This will be a month of tangling with the power of writing for those of us navigating long-term (as well as brand-new) survival. This will be a month of exploring and naming the intersection of poetry and trauma, a month of engaging poetry as an intervention in the trauma we still carry within us.

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One of the ways we’re encouraged to celebrate National Poetry Month is to carry in your pocket a poem you love, and, whenever you get the opportunity, share it with people you love. What are the poems you keep in your psychic pockets — the poems you turn to for sustenance, joy, hope, understanding?  This is one of mine:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks

(Don’t go back to sleep. Keep writing. Your poetry will feed you, and will become the lifeline that someone else carries in their pocket, too. Thank you.)

grieving what we couldn’t do

Good morning this morning. Here where I am, there are three candles flickering in their glass jars, and the rush of traffic has begun to pick up on the highway a few blocks away; sounds like the tide coming in. The birds are still sleeping, like the puppy. What are the morning sounds where you are?

I am sorry to have been so absent from this space of late. Yes, I’ve been spending as much time as possible with my sister’s new baby. And when not there, with her, being functional in some way, I’ve been– well, crying, mostly. This has been a surprise. I knew that my sister giving birth would be enormously powerful and even triggering, given our history. I didn’t know it would tear open wounds of my own that I thought had long healed.

It’s been hard for me to write during this time; the stuff I’m trying to find words for is big and complicated and layered, and has to do with, among other things, my own loss of a child 12 years ago, and my relationship with parenthood, with mothering in particular. It took me almost a week after my sister’s child was born before I sat down with a notebook to attempt to write anything at all.

Let me not convey the impression that I’m not ecstatic about this small one who’s come into my sister’s life, her husband’s life, my life… my wordlessness has a lot to do with not being able to figure out how to articulate just how amazing is his very existence. Where did he come from? How can he be? My little sister is an amazing mother. She is patient and generous, she is worried and anxious, and she is wholly in love with this new being she finds suddenly outside of her body and cradled in her arms.

I don’t want to be anything other than happy right now. I don’t want to be envious or wrapped up in my own loss. I don’t want to be plagued with thoughts that maybe I could have done this work of mothering after all. That maybe, if I hadn’t had to spend two decades trying to heal, I could have done something more with this life.

When my ex-wife got pregnant, I had been away from the man who’d brainwashed and abused me for seven years; I didn’t understand why I wasn’t all better. She was capable of being a functional adult — why wasn’t I? Why couldn’t I show up better for this part of our lives together?

When I was in my 20s, I did not believe that I could or was meant to mother. I was afraid of harming a child, of being a harm to a child just by the very fact of my presence. It didn’t matter that I enjoyed spending time with kids or that kids enjoyed spending time with me or that I had no interest in hurting a child or that I hadn’t hurt any of the children I’d spent time with. I was afraid afraid afraid. Afraid I couldn’t show up for them, the way my parents turned out not to be able to show up for their kids. Afraid I wasn’t healed enough to be nurturing or spacious with a child. Afraid I was too selfish or narcissistic (as my stepfather had told me) to be a parent. Afraid my stepfather would make good on his threats to claim and violate any children in my life. Afraid I would never write again if I had a baby because I had no boundaries and few skills or tools.

And then there was a baby, an almost-baby. But he did not live. And I have been grieving him all over again this weeks.

What’s reaching out in me are the parts of myself that might have had a chance to flourish if not for being crushed by the heavy rock of my stepfather’s violence. I have spent the last 20 years chipping away at that enormous stone, and after all these years, I’m finding little bits of things still alive — withered and broken, but alive: oh, look, maybe, for all my self-protective storytelling, I really did want to be a mother. I could have been one, and I might have been good at that work, even in the face of all the negative messages I got about women who nourished and nurtured.

I keep imagining maybe I’ve done the bulk of my healing and then, wham, I hit into a brand new vein of loss and shame and grief, and I’m thick in recovery work all over again. Maybe it will always be this way.

What I am feeling these days is joy, yes — and also regret, and sorrow. And anger. I am angry that my big accomplishment in this lifetime is survival; that I have spent my whole adult life not building a family, not building a career or retirement or security, not writing books, not putting down roots anywhere, but instead simply trying to survive and heal from what was done to me when I was a teenager. This is my big work: staying alive in the aftermath. And today I am angry that this has been my life’s work, my magnum opus. I miss what could have been. I miss it in the insides of my arms, against my neck, in the places where my own child’s breath might have been, if I had been healed or functional enough to try again after that baby died.

It is not fair, how much work we have to do to keep going. It’s not fair that we have to devote time and attention to healing that we otherwise might have turned to creative projects or family or work or community change work or something, anything, else. It’s good and important and necessary work we do every time we choose again to persist in our healing.  And, I don’t know about you, but there are days when I wish I could have spent that energy on something else.

Today I will spend the day with a woman and man (my sister and her love) who survived long enough and worked hard enough to find their way to the place of enormous risk and love that is parenthood. And I will be with this small new human, just 10 days old, who only just learning what it means to have a body, to be in this lifetime. I will keep on learning with him.

(No particular prompt today: write as you are feeling drawn to write, ok? Find your way to some words. Thank you for the space you have made for your own healing, and the way you held on to the oldest dreams in you that persist in spite of the violences you’ve had to endure. Thank you for surviving, and for learning to do more than survive.)