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poems can blossom truth inside our hearts

Stencil of a woman in a dress, dancing, head thrown back, hair hanging down, next to the words
(Poetry is an extreme sport – Miss Tic)

Good morning, good morning.

Outside, it’s traffic and crickets. I’m waiting to hear whether the owl will be back this morning – she was here on Friday, and instead of writing a post I got distracted by her.

Well, by her and some old morning writes. I went looking for what I was saying here–to myself, to you–five years ago, or seven. That’s one thing about regular journaling–getting to look back, see what you were saying before, what you felt like before, what you’re struggling with that’s the same  and what is new — you get to see how far you’ve come.

In my case, I got to look back on a relationship that felt unfixable at the time I was writing, that felt like kudzu or like I was in the ocean at a rising tide stuck in seaweed. I spent so many years trying to communicate with someone who literally could not understand the things I was saying — and, let’s be honest, in the converse, I also couldn’t, it seems, understand the things he was saying. I could never quite understand what he wanted. And  I kept trying, kept getting smaller, tightening myself up until I was knotted into a ball at the bottom of a bookbag, just a sticky thing with dust and hair and old gum wrappers stuck all over me.

And then I got the idea that maybe , that maybe, I didn’t have to stay there. Maybe my job wasn’t to stay in this relationship until the end of my (or his) life. Maybe I didn’t have to walk a hundred miles on my knees, repenting. I only had to let the soft animal of my body love what it loved. And then poetry started to sneak in to the sides and corners and crevices of my skin, my psyche, touched the parched places inside me, the places that told me I had to stay, I had to keep working, I had to keep trying to be the right thing for this person. 

(The chimes sing a little in the early breeze.)

Slowly, so so slowly, it came to me that I didn’t have to keep beating my head against a brick wall. Neither one of us deserved to be this unhappy all the time. He deserved someone who didn’t have to turn herself inside out in order to be right, feel right, be what he said he wanted. He deserved to be with someone who didn’t need to deny fundamental parts of herself in order to stay with him. He deserved to be with someone who didn’t need to swallow her tongue most days, or risk getting into yet another fight.  

There were poems that opened my eyes , the eyes inside my heart, or that turned my eyes back away from looking into a future that felt bleak. There was a Rilke poem that shifted things in me. John O’Donohue. And Mary Oliver, of course, Poems can do things that regular prose can’t. Poems sing in through the side door. They tell all the truth but tell it slant. They don’t hit us straight on, but blossom truth inside our hearts, our bellies, anyway. 

What I’m trying to get to is the fact that something that feels so entrenched, unchangeable, a situation you feel so utterly stuck in — that situation can change. And what’s true, at least for me, is that the first part of changing the situation was changing my mindset, my lenses. I had to allow myself to shift how I was seeing myself, and that relationship. Just very gently, I began to ask myself, What if I’m not wrong or bad or crazy or broken here? And what if he isn’t either? What if we’re just two very different people with very different needs and it’s ok to stop trying — after 8 years, to stop trying — to force ourselves to be something that didn’t fit?

(and then I feel myself wanting to say, hey, out here, if you’re having to tuck important and tender parts of yourself away in order to fit into a relationship, maybe that relationship isn’t the right one for you.)

I look back in those old journals, those old writes in the mornings from San Rafael or Tiburon, and I want to tell that woman, You’re ok. He’s ok. You’re just not ok together. Don’t worry about waking up tomorrow and picking up the threads of the same old fight you’ve been having since you first got together. Just set down those threads, pack your bag, and leave. I urge my hands in her direction, gesturing. Just go. But she won’t go. She’ll stay for another three years, another two. She’ll take small steps as she builds the muscles she needs to be able to leave. She — I — had to build the muscles I needed to be able to trust myself, to trust my own perceptions, my own vision, my own view of the world.

So much old stuff got triggered in that relationship. Old stuff about trusting myself, really — isn’t that at the core of it. Letting my needs be even a fraction as important as the other person’s? At some point you have to set down the old ghosts, step out of the maelstrom of voices yelling selfish, mean, thoughtless — bend your head down, duck underneath, and step out to the other side. It’s like taking off a pair of sunglasses and noticing that the world looks really different than you’d come to be used to. It’s allowing yourself to step outside of somebody else’s narrative and notice, sometimes for the first time, that you don’t fit anymore, that the story they’re telling you about you doesn’t match who you know you are. And that small voice inside you, your instinct, your intuition — becomes something you can hear again, you can attend to, you give some weight to.

The shift for me was allowing myself to imagine a reality outside of my ex’s worldview, he worldview he wanted me to live within. There were poems that helped me look at the world, and myself, anew. And writing practice helped me imagine new ways of being.

(Some animal is rushing around in the woods. At first I thought it was the wind, but the chimes are silent.)

You should never have to make yourself small in order to keep your partner happy (or your boss, or your parents, or…) And though I went into the relationship knowing that was true, intellectually, I still had to learn it in my body.

I still had to learn to trust it, trust myself.

I still had to learn to face a very old fear, one I got from my home as a young person — that If I stand up for myself, I’m going to get in trouble, and then I’m going to get hurt. And I did get in trouble in that relationship, let’s be honest. But I wasn’t a teenager anymore. I could walk away. I could say no to his demand that I see the world in such a way that minimized me, or that left me feeling crazy and literally unable to communicate effectively much of the time. I could step out, take a deep breath, and take off the glasses he said I looked so good in, in order to see the world in a different way.

We get indoctrinated, as children in abusive homes — we get trained into particular ways of seeing and understanding ourselves. So it takes a lot of work, in our adult relationships, to not listen to the old voices, especially when/if our partners say things that echo what our abusers used to say, in some form or another. They may not be intending to do so, they may not be abusive at all, but still those old messages, and those old survival strategies, are triggered within us. and so we just continue the long work of trying to dislodge that old learning, that old way of thinking that said I have to let you define reality for me because if I don’t I’ll get hurt

It took the time it took for me to move through that learning in my second marriage. I’m working to be easier with that woman I was then. The other thing that happens, over time, is that I can read these old notebook entries and not beat myself up, I can feel more compassion for the self I was then, the things I was struggling with, the complaints I kept echoing.

(And I believe, too, there are some relationships we can’t settle into until we have done deep work to heal some of these old wounds. These are mature adult relationships, people we wouldn’t be able to stand up next to until we have done the work to know and trust and like who we are–otherwise how can we love someone else who knows and trusts and likes us? They’re not going to stick around if we just spend all the time telling them how stupid they are for loving us, for liking us, for finding us smart or funny or clever or creative or kind … )

So today I’m grateful — for time, for poems, for writing, for that small quiet voice within that never stops whispering You deserve joy in this lifetime, that small voice that keeps whispering, even through days, months, years, when I can’t hear it singing inside me.

And I am grateful for you, today, too, for all the ways you make room for those around you to grow and change, and the ways you are easy with yourself in your own growing, too. And for your words, of course — I’m always grateful for your words.

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keep the problem open, she said

Street art image of a young white woman holding a stenciled poster which reads “As long as I have questions and no answers, I’ll keep writing” – Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star (Benjamin Moser, trans.)

What can I tell you about what’s happening right now? The alarm goes off at 4:30 and I’m up, even though I couldn’t get to sleep for what felt like hours last night, my heart racing racing: we thought it was a good idea to watch the first episode of the latest season of Orange is the New Black just before bed. Not really the best idea. My heart is pounding again just thinking about it  — with rage, with anticipation, with fear, with hope, with adrenaline. Mostly with adrenaline Most tv these days seems designed to fill us with as much adrenaline as possible for as long as possible. I said, my head under the pillow, from the sleep-not-sleep-if-I-don’t-sleep-how-am-I-gonna-get-up-at-4:30 place, I said, Let’s not watch this right before bed anymore. And she said, from under her pillow, Right.

But I managed to get to sleep at some point because then the birds were waking me up upaand they were on my phone. I have the candle now, the tea the quiet place in the basement with the ticking clock. No birds outside yet. Yesterday evening Sophie and I stood at attention as something awful-sounding happened with the turkeys up the hill. First there was a loud vocal noise — of fear? of anger? of consternation or seduction? — and then a great deal of rustling in the dry leaves. We stood at attention and stared. At one point we could see (I assume she could also see) a few big birds, wings out and spread, in silhouette through a break in the trees, the setting sun illuminating the glossy green live oak leaves and the dusky brown of the hillside but not the birds themselves, but then they hustled back into the forest itself, and the rest of the noise was obscured by trees. Overhead a handful of crows played upside-down-in-the-air touch football or something, and a couple hummingbirds dive-bombed the bottlebrush tree at the edge of our yard. This is a bird place for sure. The chickadees and titmice were noisy in the nighttime the evening trees, oaks, and I looked around for deer but couldn’t see any hidden in the thoroughfare just beneath our yard, the fat row of trees and space between us and the backside of the condo complex below.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. What feels good is writing here, is being at this quiet desk, is letting my fingers remember themselves onto the keys, is remembering how to just keep writing, keep typing, forget about spelling write right or going back to fix typos or make sense of anything that the words are trying to do with your hands here. I do sun salutations while waiting for the water to boil – my body tight, not used to stretching, I let my arms hang slack and then twist from side to side, hands hit the sides of my body, hit at kidney and butt, the way Alex showed me. The other day we stopped by the old neighborhood and I stole a couple of branches from two of the plants I’d started there — the native geranium and the copper creek marigold, which the latter of which had flushed out beautifully. Right now the cuttings are in a Ball jar in the kitchen, and I run my fingers along their different leaves, the thick fuzz of the geranium, the fluttery thin filagree of the marigold, and bring their different and combined scents on my fingers up to smell, then rub behind my ears with the idea that I’m giving myself a little good perfume. Recently I bought some rose geranium soap, to have a little aromatherapy in the shower — what was it they said about geranium scent? I’ll have to look it up. Either way, it makes me feel better to smell it, to bring that aroma into my body.

There are the birds waking up here’s me been awake for an hour already and the sun hasn’t yet brought any bright to the sky yet. The fog will be thick between here and the golden gate bridge. At some point, once the sun’s up, you can look out and see a fait faint separation between ground and sky, the fog coating the mountains and bridge and the fog filling the air above, the marine layer they call it, right, thats the one above, but at first it’s just all a single mass of grey and cloud and thick and wet that clots the bay and dusts everything with seasalt and morning.

That quote from Clarice Lispector, that’s what I wanted to write into this morning: As long as I have questions and no answers, I’ll keep writing. Is that what stopped me up a year or more ago? Filled up with answers and all the answers were no – no hope, no change, no possibility. I thought about the way I’ve been thinking about men recently, about masculinity and manhood. it’s true that after I got out of my last relationship I had a dim view of masculinity, the way masculinity and the acquisition of such has taken up so much space in our various queer community/-ies — the way the search for masculinity gets to be the excuse for all sorts of bad behavior, and for treating the feminine like a rag with which to wipe off a shoe or clean up come, you know. And then there’s the rest of the men. Cisgendered millennial men wish, it seems, to recreate the world of Mad Men and Wolves of Wall Street for themselves (lest they be left out of the full promise of patriarchy, god forbid).

I think I’ve been in an answered place for a long time now — and just kept getting hammered down with more answers: The world wasn’t going to change. Men were going to keep on using women and children for their sexual gratification and domination needs, no matter what we did, no matter how we grew and raged and fought back, no matter how much we “educated,” calmly explaining that, no, we didn’t want to be harassed on the street, no, thank you, we didn’t want to be raped today just because we asked for some money to support our growing business or because we were a student in their class or because we were an employee in their company or because we walked past them on the street and smiled or didn’t smile or wore clothes or had legs and breasts and a body or because we were their child or their girlfriend’s child or because we were a child in their parish or because we shared an opinion online (note! initial image at this page is likely triggering) or because or because or because— no, thank you, you know what? we don’t want to be raped today. Are you educated about this yet? Have we held enough classes and trainings?

So I had some answers — or I thought I did — and I got stuck in them.

I turned to the bread, the sourdough starter, the seeds in dirt, the garden, which are all question, all wonder, all what’s going to happen next? People were giving too many answers. I needed to get away from them. Social media, the whole fucking Internet is filled with answers–every post, every tweet, a declarative sentence, a statement, a knowing, a surety, an answer pounded with a fist into a table. There is no room for conversation in a place, within a room or inside a body, that’s all answers and no questions.

Keep the problem open, read a sticky note that I used to keep next to my bed back when I was at Hedgebrook, a piece of advice offered by Priscilla Long one night at dinner. Keep the problem open, she said, challenging the prevailing blogging culture that encourages short posts with pithy answers. Don’t think you have any answer at all. The answer stops the writing.

Questions and curiosity are what drive me to sit down at the page, the notebook, this keyboard, and ease my way into words.  Question is vulnerability and uncertainty. Question is openness, the soft belly of wonder, the tenderness of curiosity, the lack of a hard outer shell that makes fun of everything that isn’t ironic and joking, isn’t seeded with hatred and fear.

With only answers in front and inside of me, I couldn’t write. I didn’t feel drawn to write, I mean. It’s not so much that I was blocked if I sat down at the notebook, but that I didn’t want to spend time with the answers I’d been filed with. These were answers of despair, of hopelessness and depression, of the inability to change, learn, grow, hope, wonder, want. These were the answers of lack and of no. These were the answers of it’s never going to get any better and those in power are never going to give it up and we who haven’t had power aren’t going to take whats rightfully ours or demand that they quit treating us like meat to be fucked at their leisure.

What room is there in such an answer for poetry, for story, for fiction, for imagination, for wondering? Who wants to wonder into such a thing?

Maybe the garden and the bread, the dog and the birds, have helped me back into questions again. Maybe time away from social media has eased me out of the idea that the only way to participate is to Have The Answers, to use a voice that is sure of itself and clear, that doesn’t ask, that gives only a list of ten ways why every ally is an enemy, why you are fucking up your social justice work, why those who don’t think exactly like we do are capital-w Wrong, why this or that or the other group is making a mistake and has to change now, why we are going to fail at anything we try.

The people in power, if course, want us to have these sort of bleak answers, Hopelessness is easier to control than a hope that is reaching for change, that believes in a positive change, that seeks wonder, that is curious and slippery and aching with desire, that sees something new for our children and their children, and even for ourselves and those we love right now. When there are questions there are still possibilities for something new — something heretofore unimagined, something beautiful — to emerge, damp and glistening with seasalt and morning, quivering under our fingers, just ready to take its first breath.

Thank you for all the questions you are still asking, still allowing yourself to ask, still inhaling and exhaling, still writing into. Thank you, today and always, for your words.

FH-hummingbird-slider

What was it in me that expected and wanted to live?

dancing is the solution

Good morning this Wednesday morning. How is your heart today? What is the light doing with the edge of your teacup, with your mirror, with your windowpane? How are the words finding you? This morning I was up early, 3:30 and the body said, Ready? Let’s go. I had almost two hours with the candle and the notebooks before the light came. That’s some heart-feeding time there.

But don’t I always go back to the same places? The dreary trauma, the swollen girl lost and locked inside? Isn’t there more to that child? Where else can I find in that girl to fall into? What about the endeavorer, the explorer? Talk back to the girl who spent a lifetime listening to birds, harvesting sourgrass to eat, investigating every backyard, gulley and alleyway — what constitutes her humanity now? How did her curiosity survive all that he put her through? The only way I can think is to keep writing. But these bones aren’t mine anymore.

I investigate the shadows, pulling that husk out from under the body of a man who never belonged on top of her. And she had — I would tell you, it would be easy to tell you that she had by then shut her eyes to sweetness, but the truth is harder than that. The truth is she didn’t give up hope, and she eventually released all possibility of a future. How does a person learn to do that at the same time? The flowers that lived insider her had all gone to seed, gone dormant — this is why she was waiting for tomorrow. Someday — not soon, she thought, but someday — there would be a place to plant again.

Rachel Naomi Remen talks about plants forming spores when the conditions aren’t habitable for their nurturance, their growth. She says people do this, too, but we forget to peek out of our shells, our carbon containers, the tight nub our hearts become — we forget to peek out to see if things have gotten better. We remain spored, tightly bound up, protected. Plants know that spore is meant to be temporary.

Who was that girl who turned up the music and danced alone and wild, fully in her body, when she thought her stepfather wasn’t there to see? Who was that girl with so much audacity, so much life? He caught her dancing, shamed her even as he couldn’t hide his arousal. What he took from her body after couldn’t touch what had been dancing.

How frustrated her stepfather must have been with that young woman’s temerity — thinking she deserved joy. What I’m trying to get underneath is this: What was it in me that expected (and wanted) to live?

(Could this be a prompt for today? Give yourself twenty minutes, write all the way in: what was it in her, in him, in you, in me, in us that wants and expects to live? Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.)

All the gratitude today. Thanks for your words.