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book snippet: the page has room

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

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

Today I don’t want words, I want the juice of this river, I want to play in the garden. I want to plant new seeds and then listen to the neighborhood birds until the seeds throw up shoots. Some days it’s all white butterflies and green tea. Somedays it’s all the dog and her orange ball and the kids screaming at the school a block away. Some days you’ve done enough healing, it’s been years enough, and you can set something down, remove the practice barrier, the training wheels, you can roll down the window and let the air in because you’ve done enough. You’ve done enough. There are more tears to come, yes, there will be more big ache in this lifetime, but you recognize now that that’s the human condition—not only about incest, not only about recovery, just the whole life fact of this existence. We don’t stop crying and there is laughter in our eyes, the puppy sprawls at my feet in the shade. I let the sun take my shoulders to a dark brown, bake this old, oldest, tension out of muscle and bone. (2014)

The page has room for all of this, has room for my incomprehensibility, for what’s belabored, for the poetry that lives inside all my pretense. The page has room for the scars and scabs, the boll weevils, the torn leaves, the torn skin, the nonsense phrases , the bird calls, the butterfly with the wet and torn wing. The page has room for text messages and daydreams, the old fantasy and the hummingbird right now putting its green beak into the scarlet runner bean blossoms. The page has room for my wilted leaves, for the gangrenous selves, for the parts half clipped and dying, has room for what’s still to be resurrected and room for what he just could not figure out how to kill.

The page has room for as much as you can give it, and only accepts it one way: a word at a time. You can give it whatever words you want, in whatever order they arrive, but you have to stroke them out letter by letter. You give the chaotic story a bottleneck to push through and it will frame itself into a kind of sense. Write it again and the frame, the sense, will be new again. You never write yourself the same way twice. The hummingbird flies overhead—you grab it out of the air, you press its luminescent feathers and rusted-hinge song to the page. You open your eyes wide, wider, to find more of yourself existing. You are how you see. That apple tree, how the breeze reshapes its flow around you, how you eavesdrop on the conversation between those two city birds. You are the dreams you lived and the dreams you left behind. You are everything that got you here and you are here.

•§•

How does transformation happen? Minute by minute, and word by word.
As is true for so many of us, writing saved my life. I’d been trained out of the ability to be a friend, had been instructed to trust no one, did not open myself to even my most significant others. The person who knew me best in the world, during my adolescence and very young adulthood, was the man who sexually abused me, and even him I didn’t tell everything (despite his very thorough attempt to convince me that, since he could read my mind and already knew what I was thinking, it was simply a measure of my trustworthiness for me to reveal to him my every thought). The only safe place I could find was the page. I came to realize that he couldn’t get in there (nor, actually, could he get into my mind, but allowing myself to trust that fact took much longer). Finally, I had a place for all of myself to belong. I let the worry, remembering, panic, desire, sorrow, rage and fear out there. Writing helped me to figure out what I knew, what I thought, who I’d been and who I was becoming. I read Writing Down the Bones, and followed Natalie Goldberg’s instructions: freewrite every day, follow any surprising or ridiculous thought, get it all down onto the paper, don’t stop to analyze or decipher, just write, just write, just write. The practice became exercise and meditation, and a process of recreation and resurrection.

•§•

They say—those voices of writerly authority—that we should write what we know. But sometimes what we know is denial and silence. What we know is discord. What we know is our words squelched or torn from our throats.

So we write what we know, and we write our “unknown”—that which is uncertain, hazy, confusing, diffusely remembered, unrooted in us. Write what you don’t know, or what you don’t know yet. Write what you think or imagine or wonder. Write your certainties and your fears. Write what unknowing feels like. We need a language for what it’s like not to know what one’s own body has done or been put through. Write the fuzziness and numbness. Write the cycling of emotions. Write exactly what happened—what you know happened and 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: confusions, fragmented, broken, metaphorical.

•§•

As young children, if we are lucky, we are taught by those who love us to listen to our instinct, intuition, curiosities—to listen to our “gut.” We need guidance and encouragement to heed that deep inside wisdom, though, and most often, even for those of us not abused, the process of growing up means learning to ignore our intuition. We are taught to do what others expect from us, what makes others comfortable or happy. If we are female, we’re taught to act small, get quiet, and stuff our voices down while baring our bodies for the viewing and approval of others; if we are male, we’re taught to get loud and big, force our voice into a room, take what we want and stuff our emotions down. If we are genderqueer, well, we’re mostly just taught to disappear. We are—all of us—taught that what other people think of us is more important than what we think of ourselves. And we are taught that being ourselves, if that self is at odds with the expectations of our community or those in power, can get us hurt. Our survival instinct kicks in and teaches us how to follow, even if following chafes.

In the workshops I talk about what it means to come back into a relationship of trust with our intuition, that small quiet voice inside that has always wanted to lead us in the right direction but that we were trained or forced to ignore, especially if we were children of violent homes. It didn’t matter that there was something inside us screaming, No, stop, let’s get out of this situation, let’s get away from this person! If we live with our abusers, we can’t leave, at least not physically, most of the time. We are forced to turn our attentions outward—to focus on the smallest nuances of a parent’s or abuser’s mood, voice, actions, so that we can get a sense of their emotional state and thereby hope to keep ourselves a little more safe. We learn how to read their tone of voice when they call us to dinner, learn how the evening is going to unfold by the way they shut the door when they come into the house. We give so much attention to the violent or unstable people around us, and we turn our attention away from the voice inside that knows what goodness and brilliance we’re capable of. We have to ignore that voice if we want to be safe.

I’ve used writing as one way back into a relationship with my intuition. And part of that practice, for me, has been writing messily, taking risks, following whatever thread is pulling at me. I write the words that call themselves forward, even if they make no logical sense, even if I’m confused by where they’re going, even if I’m scared or feel stupid about what I’m writing. Maybe I just hear syllables or nonsense words—write them. Maybe there’s a phrase that wants out that I don’t understand—I have to write it; otherwise those words or sounds just keep repeating themselves until I do.

This is a languaging of trauma, the real world’s song, with its own grammars and choruses. Repeat what bears repeating, and then rewrite the rest. Follow your instinct, and let your pen guide you.

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

babayagaSmall

book snippet: how to restory

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

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

I started journaling in 1993, when I was twenty-one years old and breaking away from my stepfather after nearly ten years of ongoing sexual, psychological, and physical abuse. As often as I could, I took refuge in local café, where I bought a large, dark roast coffee, and popped a tape into my portable cassette player—Ani DiFranco, Erasure, Zap Mama, The Crystal Method—slid my headset over my ears, folded the notebook open to a new page, uncapped my pen, wrote things I thought I’d never be able to say out loud. I spent years doing this, my butt planted in a wooden chair in some coffee house or other in Northern New England or around San Francisco. This is the way I found my tongue again. I wrote through the numbness that kept me protected—through writing I could feel the sadness, despair, depression, rage. The emotions had a weight and a shape once they found their way into words, whereas, inside me, they had all tangled together into a single inarticulate mass. There were few days I didn’t break through into tears while I bent over my notebook at that corner table in the back of the cafe.
In the earliest months of my writing practice, I was often rigidly and “logically” truthful. I froze often during my writing sessions, straining hard to get every detail right so my stepfather could not accuse me of lying (should he ever come to read what I wrote—and, of course, I assumed he would; up to that point, he’d had access to every single aspect of my being). I wanted to compile a record of his atrocities, and was beginning the work of disentangling my feelings from the so-called psychoanalytical brainwashing that was a core component of his control over me, my sister, and my mother. If he ever made good on his threat to have me killed for leaving his bed, I believed someone would find this notebook and finally know who I really was. In those early years, as much as for any other reason, I wrote to survive my death in the form of a final, true story. I had told so many lies—I wanted someone, in the end, to know What Really Happened.

I wanted friends and former lovers and family to read the story that explained me: this is why I was so sexually experienced so young; this is why I’d be locked in the bathroom of my dorm room on the phone with my stepfather for hours; this is why I had rabid mood swings; this is why I was such an erratic friend; this is why I disappeared. Oh, this was why Jen was so crazy all the time. This is what she was dealing with.
After a year or so of “just” writing, I managed to get into individual therapy. I participated in groups for women who were incest survivors. I spent hours wandering around my small college town, listening to music and crying. I drank too much, watched too much bad television, spent uncountable hours reading books about incest, feminism, sex. But it was when I sat alone at the Dirt Cowboy Cafe in that small town in New Hampshire, one hand affixed to a big mug of French Roast coffee and the other hand moving a pen across the page, that things—life, loss, longing—slowed down and unraveled enough for me to be able to breathe a little better.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg said we should take two years focused only on writing practice before we tried to write for publication, so that we could learn the contours of our minds, our inner selves. I couldn’t imagine wasting all that time just journaling. Two whole years? Is she kidding?

I look up today and it’s been over twenty.

They weren’t relaxing, those hours with my journal. This was not a hobby or dalliance. I was learning to save my life. Writing came to be a way for me to be safely but intensely present with myself and with the world around me. Through writing, first and foremost, I (re)learned what it meant to be human.

•§•

This is the writing practice that has worked for me: write daily (or as near as possible), create open space for the words, keep the pen moving, don’t let the censor/abuser stop the flow of words (sometimes I write down the censor/abuser’s objections, when I can stomach it, just to get them out of the way), and follow the writing wherever it seems to want to go.
“Following the writing” means listening to the tug that wants me to write about my childhood dog or that moment of feeling triggered when I thought I was going to finally get to write about the sex I had last weekend. It means writing exactly the words that pop into my head—those first, often nonsensical thoughts—and trusting them, even if I can’t see where they’re leading. It means writing, word by word, into the terrifying places, always going slowly, listening to the deep wisdom of psyche that tells me when we are ready to go in and nudges me when we are ready to ease back out. I drop my pen to the page and go, trusting that I won’t be the same on the other side. French feminist Hélène Cixous, in her brilliant essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” wrote, “When I write, it’s everything that we don’t know we can be that is written out of me, without exclusions, without stipulation, and everything we will be calls us to the unflagging, intoxicating, unappeasable search for love.” That’s what I mean.

When I started journaling in cafes back in the early ’90s, I wrote fast and messy. Fast, because I wanted to catch those first thoughts as they came to me. There was no time to slow down—I needed to grab the thought and get it on the page right away because the stepfather in my head was sure to contradict, challenge, or change it. I learned to catch those thoughts and write them, too. I wanted all of it on the page, so I could look back at it later, so I could record all the madness in my head, so I didn’t have to be all alone with this overwhelm anymore. The page could help me hold it. I wrote messily so that I could write anywhere—in public, at the coffee shop—without worrying that the people around me could easily read over my shoulder. I was afraid of being found out, yet I couldn’t write at my apartment. Home wasn’t a safe place, no matter that the physical danger lived 1,400 miles away. At the cafe, I couldn’t hear the phone ringing, reminding me that he was (I feared) never going to stop monitoring me, never going to stop harassing me, never going to let me live my life away from him in peace.

I had a whirlwind in my head. I wanted to get it all down before I forgot, or lost the thread, or lost my nerve, before he came to take me back. I was sure he was going to track me down and make me go back.
In order to concentrate on writing, I needed noise outside to counteract all the noise inside, to soothe my hyperarousal and an overdeveloped startle response, to get to what Stephen King calls “the basement place” out of which to imagine and create. I needed a crowded cafe, loud music in my headphones, and my back to a wall, face toward the door. No one was going to sneak up on me while I wrote this history, while I wrote into the contours of my trauma. It took a great deal of effort and energy to be able to focus my attention at all. I wrote stream-of-consciousness (I have whole notebooks that are run-on sentences), fragments, flash images, and filled the page with shout-and-scribble when I was too angry to form words at all.

Over time, by following the thread of my writing right into the now, the now became a place that’s safer for me to inhabit while I’m writing, even without all the distraction. Slowly, over these years of writing practice, I have come to be able to write even with no headphones on, no longer terrified of my startle response, no longer afraid of something bad happening to me when I get lost in the words.

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

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Our lives are forever greater than that

above all
I’ve cosmically transmuted the atmospheric bone
the dementia enveloped by protest
by turquoise weight
& somnific solar inclusion
singing by eclipse torrent
by waves of flame erupting from mirrors & dreams of post-
extinction
– from “Song in Barbarous Fumarole of the Japanese Crested Ibis,” by Will Alexander

Then, there! We watched the thin edge disappear—
The obvious stole over us like awe,
That it was our own silhouette we saw,
Slow perhaps to us moon-gazing here
(Reaching for each other’s fingertips)
But sweeping like a wing across that stark
Alien surface at the speed of dark.
– from “Sublunary,” by A. E. Stallings

Last night my sweetheart woke up just long enough to see the earth’s shadow slip up onto the surface of the moon and take a bite, but we missed most of the libran lunar eclipse. This morning I sit in front of the low illumination of the computer screen, listening to the candleflame flickering in its glass containment, and imagine what magic was cast over our sleeping bodies when the whole of the earth passed between moon and sun. What new songs did the garden plants learn to sing from that shining halo of refracted light? What leftover glow will catch itself onto my fingers when I reach for those new leaves today?

Yesterday afternoon I weeded the garden just a little, and watered the new plants. I watched the honeybees in the orange tree, watched the black guard bee protect the blossoms — what an extraordinary task for such a small animal: make sure only the right bees get to this pollen. He flies around and around the tree, buzzing close to anyone who approaches, human or dog. He does not sit down for a coffee break. He does not rest. Later in the afternoon, on the phone with my sister — in which I live in the future and can look at a box in my hand and see both her and her new son in their home far away — a stellar’s jay drops into the middle raised bed; he perches on the wooden edging and pulls something up in his beak, shaking it hard. This is just where I’ve planted my little lettuces, and so I holler at him to leave the lettuce alone. He ignores me, because I am all the way up on the deck, and do not speak his language. He keeps shaking the thing in his beak a bit, then gets what he wanted, and flies over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. I suddenly picture him shaking a snail out of its shell, and the jay becomes my ally with his sharp raspy cry and his too-big feet. I want him to come back and get all the snails out of the garden, away from my lettuces. We will work together – me and the jay and the guardian bee and the eclipsed moon and the early morning songbirds.

I wonder how to make it clear that this writing is about survival, how this writing connects to the larger work of this blog: then I wonder if that’s necessary. This morning there is a new and quiet longing that’s lodged itself in my body, behind breastbone and breath. Its voice sounds like something more than the daily work of just making it, of pulling the ends together, of barely yanking the shamed body up into a sitting position before the night falls and we are left to do it all over again tomorrow. The voice of this new longing is for a place that is substantial and rooted, is for growth that doesn’t struggle to rise out of the desecrated ground of trauma. The point is that life is continuous and regenerative. The point is that bodies can recover. The point is that nothing is the same after we are harmed to the point of breaking open, but also that we can still open the blinds to look at the wonder of the simple movement of the sky’s body, that we can be more than the aftermath of one man’s madness. Our lives are forever greater than that.

 

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come back

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

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

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

and by this quote from Carl Jung:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

babayagaSmall

this family I’ve been dancing around the edges of

Good morning this Wednesday morning. Where I am, the sun is still behind the thick early fog; even the Oakland hills aren’t quite visible yet. The puppy is at my feet, chewing away at her toy tire, and my morning candle is a needed thing in this just-undusk.

What does family mean to you? Could it ever mean anything uncomplicated again?

This morning, I would like to bake bread: turn on the radio and dial the tuner to an NPR station, get out the hand mixer, and toss the oats and honey and yogurt and blackened bananas and nutmeg and salt and baking soda into a bowl — I’d like to be preparing something to feed your family. I’d like to prepare something to feed this little family that I am dancing around on the edges of. I’d like a slow morning, with laughter and investigation and silliness — everybody reading their own piece of the paper, sharing sections aloud, asking what the others think, while the puppy takes up her place on the living room carpet and disassembles her toy.

There’s something I would like to write about family, but it’s not quite time yet. There are some topics that are private, are for inside writing, are for notebooks and handwritten journals.

This is what I will tell you: I have generally felt, since 1994, that I was outside of family, that I didn’t belong to the body of anybody’s blood. Do you know what I mean? Family became an abstract word to me, a sort of violence that I no longer had to participate in because I had been ejected. I walked away. Of course that’s not true: I didn’t just walk; I ran. Family was never an abstract violence; it had come to mean either abandonment or captivity and terror. The second ten years of my life managed to wholly undermine and undo the lessons of the first ten years, which had taught me that family meant pleasure, safety, silence, worry, and laughter.

Last week I spent time with my blood family: my father, my sister, their partners. We met at the top of the middle of the country and spent several days generally adoring one another’s company. We ate together, drove out into rainstorms and then were finally safe enough with each other that we could huddle together in a tiny space, to get away from the hail, without feeling at risk. Let me not use that royal we — I had to sit in a tiny space in the front of my dad’s wife’s jeep, wedged between my sister and her husband on one side and my father in the driver’s seat, and nothing in me was afraid or on alert. I am only just realizing this now, five days later. In the moment, when my body was shoved close to my sister’s and my father’s, I didn’t feel anything but amusement at the situation and a general (normal?) satisfaction at being with them.

It didn’t used to be this way. For years I was uncomfortable being too close to my sister — I was afraid that my very presence would do a violence to her. I was hyperaware of where her body was in relationship to mine.

And in the early part of this journey away from trauma, when my father and I became aware of how broken our relationship was (after the conversation in (was it?) 1995 or 1996 when I had to tell him (my sister told him first, she broke the ice, she was the brave one) what had happened to us when we were out of his custody and being kept away from him at our mother’s husband’s house) — how do you use those sorts of words with your father? How do you find the language to describe to your father — he who had been meant to protect you — what you had to do to and beneath a grown man’s body? Talk about unspeakable. I kept most of the words to myself; he heard them when my statement was read into the court record in lieu of testimony, during my stepfather’s trial. I spent those years keeping a distance from my father’s body. I forgot — or it was no longer an option to remember, and so I released — a child’s easy comfort with a parent’s physical being.

Do you know what it’s like to be jealous of a young boy leaning in on his mother’s body, like that’s a safe place for him? Like that’s a place he deserves to belong?

My family and I have been working at this thing of reconnection and recovery for a long time. We have worked at this thing of reclaiming a sense of family that is safe and possible, both new and old. During our days together last week, I felt a new (or old?) kind of ease around them: there were no major meltdowns, no massive triggers, and, this time, the tears that came were mostly joyful ones. And I sat in that jeep, pressed close to my father’s body, and smelled the cologne that he’s worn all of his life and felt only familiarity and gratitude.

There were years when I could not have imagined this, when I thought family would always and only mean loss. Now I am wondering about something new.