Tag Archives: trauma aftermath

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.

~~ ~~ ~~

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.

 

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 –