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book snippet: what writing can do

(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 section “what writing can do for survivors”:

This is what I believe: Give us safe space, a “room” of our own and we will create change in our lives. We learn what it means to lie and truth our way to safety, to lie our way home. We must take what we need to continue the process of survival, which is ultimately a process of resistance: the pen the paper the time the space the cafe or bedroom or kitchen table the 3 a.m. living room the subway train the cemetery the laundromat the whatever it is we need.

Take me backward into your dreams and let me watch you stumble. Your language is yours alone, the sounds of your body the stretch and wrinkle of your face the wrinkled words and nods, shrugs and shivers and shifts of eyeballs. You know your own way and I cannot tell it for you. I can hold your hand, though, and promise to listen while you float in your own waters, while you choke down the nausea of history in your instance to see the clownfish and schools of yellowtail floating around the coral of yourself. (2003)

In the years I’ve written with groups of sexual trauma survivors, I’ve become convinced that every person has artistic brilliance in them. There hasn’t been a single person in any writing group I’ve ever facilitated who hasn’t generated work that surprises them and astonishes listeners. Not one. And this isn’t because I’m some kind of genius facilitator—this is about what happens when survivors gather to share their stories through poetry and metaphor, song and testimony.

Pat Schneider says in her book, Writing Alone and With Others, “What I believe is not what everyone believes. It is this: There is no place for hierarchies in the heart, and the making of art is a matter of the heart. Art is the creative expression of the human spirit.” Together, we who participate in these writing groups engage in the co-creation of a space that allows for risk, performance, and play. We who have been denied hearings by those in power can assist and heal ourselves and each other. There is powerful pleasure, connection, and transformation possible through the sharing of ourselves through story, and deep change occurs when we have the audacity to articulate the truths of our lives.

When we come together this way, assiduously working to remain aware and respectful of the differences among us, and share our words, we get to acknowledge our ability to create beauty—both because we listen to our own poetic phrasing and descriptions, and because others tell us what is beautiful and strong for them in the writings we offer. We hear, witness, and open (to) the beauty in ourselves and in others; we “seek[] a language that allows [us] to imagine a new world without forgetting the tragedies of the past,” as theologian Sharon Welch wrote. It’s a revolution when we, who have spent years reiterating to ourselves the lessons of ugliness learned at our abusers’ hips, are able to acknowledge splendor in ourselves.

•§•

One Monday night, several years ago, a group of writers gathered in my living room for the fourth of eight meetings of a survivors writing group. Three walked in together, laughing, having met at the front door of my apartment building. One was already here, and the others arrived soon after. My homely little living room with its tangerine-orange walls was full of conversation as the writers made their tea and gathered up plates of snacks: nuts, strawberries, baby carrots, potato chips, and dark chocolate. The tenderness, delight, and anticipation was palpable. If not for their readiness to claim trauma survivor openly, the writers would not have found themselves in this room, thrumming with the heartbeat of creative connection.

This deep connectedness doesn’t emerge in every single group—sometimes folks don’t click quite as completely; that’s a possibility for any group of people. Still, it’s not uncommon for the writers, two or three weeks in, to find their hearts broken open to one another. We find we care about each other as people. We care about each other’s histories, but even more, we care about one another’s now. Folks exchange phone numbers, offer rides to and from the subway, email each other during the week. We begin to allow ourselves to connect.

For those who have been shamed, called stupid or dull, for those taught that kindness is weakness or weapon (and what American has not been taught this?), for those who believed no one would listen, for those whose voices went dormant, for those silenced or terrorized, the steps we take together when we write, read, and respond allow us to organically unlearn old lessons, and allow our psyches to gently internalize something new, something that was always true: we have a necessary story to tell and we are enough for that telling; we deserve (and deserved) to be listened to; we have something to share; the story of our survival helps others heal and grow. Our words are necessary sustenance for ourselves, yes, and for others in our communities, too.

•§•

There is magic that happens for a survivor who sits down and writes herself to the page in stunning visions, who sits down with other survivors and reads her real self: her surviving, wondering, hungry, difficult, fragmented, gorgeous self. The writing opens up the tight fist of power and control and drops us out—the writing opens up a chasm, the writing throws over a bridge, the writing topples buildings and walls, boulders fall, steam rises, the room opens. We don’t do anything when we hear each other except bear witness, and maybe that’s all that matters. Yes, we hear and, yes, we speak our listening and, yes, we say this is where I swell when your words touch me. Yes, we listen hear want desire imagine. The pen is a vision is a dream shimmering, the oil slick silvery rainbow over the deep well of tide pool we will eventually dive into.

Writing makes a difference. Visualizing and hoping makes a difference. When we write this way, we risk becoming aware of ourselves differently. We can take the lessons we were taught, the rules and regulations of our traumatized selves, and walk through them like a ruined house of mirrors. We don’t have to be who they—the abusers, the school teachers, the boys on the bus—told us we were.

What I have learned deeply, what I have internalized through this transformative writing practice, is that there’s no such thing as “doing it right” when it comes to writing and when it comes to sex and when it comes to living in the aftermath of sexual trauma. We are infinite in our abilities, in our possibilities.

•§•

Someone said, if we don’t tell our stories, others will tell them for us, and they will get them wrong. The stories that the others tell about you will be used to build policy and pathology, will be used to build boxes to hide you in, used to build walls to close around you, used against you. If we do not tell our stories, the stories told about us will be used to our detriment.

We are a nation of subjected and silenced people. We are a nation of people trained into the difference of others as reason enough to kill them. We are a nation raised on our supremacy—America is the greatest country in the world!—and we believe it even as we see our leaders stripping away our bedsheets and clothes, snatching the food from our and our children’s mouths, tearing down our homes, thieving the books from our children’s hands and tossing it all on the bonfires of their war, tossing it all into their own furnaces, selling our labor on the open market to the highest or most connected bidder and pocketing the money themselves.

Still: We have our bodies. We have our hands and feet thighs legs arms eyes noses breasts mouths bellies chests butts foreheads fingers lips toes and yes genitals yes cunts and cocks yes, and we have our voices. We can use them to our own ends, and in service of those we love and all we believe in, rather than allowing ourselves to be deployed in service of those in power through our silence. Through this writing practice, I open to the world around me. I walk around heavily awake, I smile more amply, I touch the cats on the ledge with my eyes. I am present. I am seen and I see. I am heard. This is the opposite of dissociation. This is the practice of embodiment, the practice of resistance, the practice of freedom.

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

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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…)

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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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the radical act of putting our oxygen mask on first

In my community, a lot of folks are talking about radical self care – not just self care, but radical self care. But what makes taking a vacation or a bubble bath or watching Pretty in Pink or your favorite guilty pleasure movies with a pint of chocolate Coconut Dream and a package of gluten-free chocolate chip cookies radical?

I think you have an idea why. I think your deep heart knows. Your deep heart isn’t the questioning your real need for a break. It’s the other voices questioning you– the inner critic, the internalized perpetrator, your inner radical activist wanting to know how you can possibly justify an hour for a walk around the lake at the heart of your town or – holy shit – several days’ vacation when the revolution is nowhere near at hand and people are starving and beaten and suffering while you decide you’re just gonna take a little down time. Really? Who do you think you are? ask all the voices in unison.

Writing has been the place where I learned the power of a regular self care practice. I’ve had few other consistent self-care practices, save going for long walks. Writing has been my meditation, my grounding, my chance to be more fully in my skin for at least 15-30 minutes a day. On the days I don’t write, I am a less pleasant version of myself: cranky, crotchety, crabby – still disassembled. The days I write I find I breathe more easily. I feel more human. And still I’ve had stretches of days or weeks during which I told myself I didn’t have time to write – the voices of self-denial and abnegation are strong; they’re embedded in our very flesh.

We are not supposed to take care of ourselves. We know we’re not worth taking care of: those meant to care for and protect us didn’t, so who are we to do otherwise?

We live in a culture that trains us in dissatisfaction with our bodies and lives. We live in a culture that routinely disregards the lives and needs of those who have less power, and so we are left to struggle and battle for better living conditions for all. If we are activists, we inhabit a culture of overwork, in which direct and secondary trauma impacts everyone around us. We see our comrades doing too much for too little (if any) pay. We see frontline activists, direct action workers, burn out; we see long-timers harden into a professionalized cynical mindset that helps protect them from the pain and stress they see every day. It’s awful, but it’s par for the course. This is what you sign on for if you want to change anything in society. Right?

We are asked, during our job interviews for these jobs, how we take care of ourselves; we understand that we have to have an answer to this question. We also understand that our self care is never supposed to take priority over the work. The work.

I don’t believe this anymore. I used to, but after hitting a massive burnout in 2008 and then continuing to overwork myself for 2-3 more years, I have finally opened my eyes to the idea that there might be other, maybe even more effective, ways of engaging in a longterm and sustainable relationship with trauma and social change work.

Our self care is radical because we have been trained from birth to look to others’ needs first. Our self care is radical because it sustains us for the journey, it keeps us in the game, it makes our work more effective, it opens our hearts, it brings self-love back to the table as a necessary goal and practice.

We have to ask what kind of world we’re working for. Don’t we want — for all people — lives that have more life in them?

I know, you say. I’ll get there. I just have to finish this grant, do my shift at the co-op, organize tonight’s transformative justice roundtable, answer these 27 emails and cover the hotline…

Then I’ll take care of myself.

There’s no good time. There’s always going to be more work for we who are activists or other sorts of creative beings engaged in work that doesn’t get done. To do lists are only marginally useful when they include items like “upend patriarchy,” “write healing book,” “undo white supremacy,” “end sexual abuse.” I don’t know about you but I’ve had to do lists like that. The work seems endless – we’re a part of an enormous transformation. For us to be able to show up consistently and reliably in this work that we love, for the people and communities and world we believe in, we have to take care of our hearts and bodies and souls/ This is how we sustain ourselves in the world.

This decision, to sustain ourselves, is radical – especially for those of us whom society deems not at all worth saving. Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Self-care is radical when it directly contradicts the messages living in us, telling us we deserve to die.

Self care is uncomfortable for many of us: we fear judgment from our friends and communities, our comrades, our families, those around us who are not taking care of themselves. Of course it’s uncomfortable at first — and maybe for awhile: it’s discomfiting to act in direct opposition to the voices of those who say we don’t deserve to live, much less have joy, comfort, ease, pleasure and celebration in our lives.

Radical self care looks like acting with intention, looks like small daily or regular centering practices, looks like creative intervention in a way of life designed to sap all of your energy into the daily grind and away from love, intimacy, and cultural change.

Radical self care looks like leaving work on time instead of staying an extra two or three unpaid hours to finish “just one more thing.” It looks like learning to listen to your body.

Radical self care looks like saying Yes when someone I trust asks to give me a massage, rather than reflexively saying no out of some guilt that I hadn’t asked them first and wasn’t already giving them a massage. It means understanding what being an introvert means. It means listening to my energy patterns, my hungers, my curiosities.

Radical self care means being easy with myself, and it means pushing sometimes, too. It means releasing myself from the pressure to be like everyone else – either in mainstream culture or in my various alternative subcultures.

Radical self care means knowing that what works for me today might not work tomorrow – and what I think today is ridiculous, indulgent, woo-woo or way too Berkeley (body work? Ecstatic dance? Writing retreats? Somatic energy healing?) may very well be just the thing that works best for me tomorrow – so if I can ease off on my judgment of others, I’m likely to move more smoothly through my own healing process.

Radical self care means opening space in my life – means holding open room to move around. Down time. Breathing room. Means making sure that all these muscles I’m building and stretching have time to recuperate and strengthen – the resting is as important a part of the exercise as the contracting, after all.

What else is radical self care? Consent. Sobriety. Quitting the day job. Therapy. Going back to school. Quitting school. Media breaks. A movie marathon. Masturbation. A month of celibacy. A sex party. Tending a garden. Adopting a cat. Planning a vacation. Finding a different job. Leaving activist work. Returning to activist work. A cup of tea. Meditation. Making yourself a delicious lunch. Grieving. Watching movies that make you laugh and cry. What’s your list?

I think one of the reasons we call our self care radical is that we want to assert its importance. No, really, this matters: it’s radical. Things that are edgy, dangerous, and transformative are radical. Radical is about roots, is about shifting the core of a thing: of ourselves.

So, sleep is radical for those of us raised on exhaustion. A long talk with our best friend is radical for those of us isolated away from community. Deep, prolonged belly laughter is radical for those of us fed despair. These are transformative practices. Radical acts.

For me, it meant writing every day (and then reaching beyond a writing practice into other healing modalities, once I found the limits of what writing could do for me). Writing practice has helped me discover when I needed a break, has also helped me understand what I might need to do to take care of myself or make a change in my life. The writing itself, of course, is also a healing and self care practice. When I take the time to go back through the notebooks, to meet myself and my mind, as Natalie Goldberg encourages, I am confronted with clear information about where I’m out of balance. What am I complaining about regularly? What am I refusing to write? Where am I putting most of my energy? Is there a part of my body bothering me? Do I need a massage or a steam or a run or a hot bat or a nap or a swim or a movie or some play time? Am I in procrastination or avoidance mode and do I need to take some action? Am I lonely or people-overloaded? When I take the time to be in reflection (itself a practice of radical self care), then I can respond to what my body and life are asking for. In the end, this is about crafting a life that is sustainable and consistently nourishing me so that I can engage in work that nourishes others, so that I can be of use in the ways I am meant to be of use.

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What self care practices feel radical to you right now? What do you do to take care of yourself today that a younger self would not have been able to imagine? How would you like to be able to care for yourself? Can you give those ideas and imaginings 10-15 minutes on the page today? Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

Thank you for your generosity and spaciousness with yourself, the way you model powerful self care practices for others. Thank you for your writing today, and thank you for your words.

babayagaSmall

begin again (again)

This is where we begin: at the open notebook, at the blank page. It’s morning again, and we are starting over, again. Even if we are in the middle of a longer work, even if we have characters who whisper to us in our dreams, still: every morning is a beginning again. Every morning we are afraid we might not be able to do it, or we are afraid that nothing will come. Every time we are confronted with that space of blankness that opens out behind our fingers, behind our eyes, behind the parts of our physical selves that do the writing, the places from which the writing emerges into and through us. I have written about this before, and I suspect I will return to it again, too.

This is where we begin: at the self that’s still healing, at the self that still aches for acceptance, at the parts of our own story still being written. What am I trying to say? I sit down at the notebook and want to make sense of a story that is still finding its way into words. This is a morning write. Deliver the words into the air of the page, deliver the words into the fear and the sadness anyway. Watch the sky shift from its nighttime blackness into shallow early morning shadow, and follow those shadows into the words you need to write.

This is where we begin: at the mourning places, with the voices in us that are still keening, with the small death songs that our hands have never been able to sing. We write them down. We write down what we could not mourn when we were younger: lost friendships, stolen dogs, missteps, old wantings, family that could have been but was not allowed to be.

This is where we begin: in the deep joy, in the play, in the silliness, in the wordwonder that struck us when we first began to move pencil across blue-lined pages. We begin again in that first delight in the fact we can shape out of only words a thing that didn’t exist before, an experience, an understanding, a conveyance from ourselves and into another (or more fully into ourselves). We begin in wonder, in longing, and with hope.

There is always a beginning. This is what I’m holding this week. I have been doing this workshop-facilitation work for ten years, this writing work for about twenty, and I still feel like a beginner. I want answers and clarity, and the one thing (possibly the only) I’m sure about is this: we have to begin again. We have to pick up the pen, again. We have to open the notebook to a blank page or the next empty line, take a deep breath, and begin to write. We have to step into the mystery that is this process, the alchemy of want and haunting, language and upbringing, creative mastery and deep curiosity, healing and play.

I will spend a lifetime seeking the language for what it is that happens when we who have survived a traumatic experience sit ourselves down in a writing place and begin to let our words flow, openly, authentically, and without censorship — when we write whatever wants to be written, however it wants to be written. I don’t have the words yet, not just the right ones, and so I keep writing. I step in again, I remove my armor again, I meet the confusion and fear again, I let the words come, again. I trust that whatever words will come will be the right ones. I take deep breaths around the desire to control the flow: I wanted to write it this way, but the words are pulling me over here. Ok, then follow the words over there. There is a logical sense to this practice, this process, and its a logic born of the underground, the current and network of interconnected pathways and experience that shapes our entire lives. It’s a logic we can’t put our fingers on. It’s a logic we can’t see or explicate, a logic that tethers itself to a something beyond.

In trusting that the words will come, we are trusting ourselves, and we are trusting something other: whatever it is that delivers us the words. I don’t have a language for that other; let’s stay with mystery, or the well of creativity, or human resilience — regardless, whenever we sit down to write our stories or our poems or our journal entries or our fiction, we invite ourselves into or alongside that other. We knock on the door and we hope again that we will be admitted. Sitting down is the knocking. Lifting the pen is the knocking. Writing even though we don’t know what we’re going to say, or how we’re going to say it, is the knocking. This is how we gain admittance into that place of other, that deepness in ourselves: we begin again today.

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What is it in you that is longing, again, to find some space on the page? What would celebrate having ten minutes to play in the words with you today? Offer that time today: ten minutes, open notebook, pen, go. Begin with the phrase, “Begin again” or “We (She/He/They/You) can begin again.” If you get stuck, write it again. Begin again, again today.

Remember that the early-bird rates for the fall in-person writing groups ends this Saturday. Register this week to join us for Write Whole (open to all trauma survivors) or Reclaiming Our Erotic Story at the discounted rate.

Thank you for the ways you enter into the joy and play and unknown of this practice. Thank you for your writing today, and thank you for your words.

 

babayagaSmall

write why it matters

I have my angel islands on today, my candle drifted, my morning tea. The long boat of the night is gone and we drift into this day, we peek or float or flail. We whisper or whimper.

I sit down at the page and know that I’m out-gunned, that I will never get it all down. I will always be chasing something I can never catch. I have to pick up the pen anyway. That’s the day’s first triumph. I will never capture every thought and image, I will never pierce every hole inside, I will never get it all out there. There’s just no way. We have too many stories.

What does it matter whether you write something today that didn’t exist in the world before, if that writing never sees anything but the inside of your notebook? What does it matter if you sit yourself down in front of the page every day, a resolute starfish obeying the tides? What does it matter if you wipe the sleep from your eyes fifteen minutes earlier than usual so that you know you’ll have those few moments when you feel the most whole, the most uncontained, the most possible?

Does it matter if the process shifts something inside you, defeats the anxieties, quiets the spinning places, opens the eyes of curiosity? Does it matter if it’s a place of meditation and play and sorrow and confusion and joy?

Give yourself ten minutes and write why it matters that every day you do it anyway: pick up this implement of humanity and try again.

babayagaSmall

why write every day?

Good (grey) Tuesday morning to you! How is your heart this morning? Are you being easy with you?

 This morning I am thinking about the exhortation to write every day: Do you have a daily writing practice? What does that look like? What would it look like if you had your way?

 Long before I read The Artist’s Way, I was getting up early in the morning to write, for an hour or more. Mostly nothing has come of this writing, by which I mean that most of it hasn’t been published. Instead, this writing has been for me. There were years when I woke regularly between 4 and 4:30 am – this never got easy. Initially, I had to trick myself to get out of bed, using my caffeine addiction. Even though I knew how much better I felt when I was able to get up and have time in the dark with my notebook and words, the only thing that would make me actually get out from under the covers in those early morning years was setting up my coffee pot to start brewing at 4 or thereabouts – my alarm would go off and I would smell the coffee (that’s right); it was the fact that I didn’t want the coffee to burn that got me up. I dragged myself out of bed to pour the coffee into a carafe – and by then I was up, so I also made myself a cup, laced liberally with sugar, lit my morning candle, and sat down at the kitchen table where I’d left my journal the night before.

Daily writing has been the way that I found myself. I used the page as the place where I did what Brian Andreas describes in the story “Open Heart”:

He told me that once
he forgot himself & his
heart opened up like a
door with a loose latch
& everything fell out &

he tried for days to put
it all back in the proper
order, but finally he
gave up & left it there
in a pile & loved
everything equally.

I called these writing writes my core dumps – I wrote in order to get it all out in front of me: worries and frustrations, trauma memory and work struggles, trouble or longing in my relationships. This was where I could be all of myself: petty, whining, disappointed, hurt, brilliant, furious, desiring, turned on, curious, frustrated, catty, joyful, wondering. While much of my daily writing has not emerged from the notebooks, I often write first drafts of essays or erotic stories, longhand, during daily writing sessions. After getting the core dump out of the way, I found I had energy to get imaginative, and would work on poems or stories.

I like it to be dark when I’m into the morning writing – I like to feel cradled and held, I like to feel as though there’s nothing else I should be doing. So often I have felt like I’m stealing my writing time: from partners, from my job, from chores that need attending to. This thing that I do in the dark (thanks to June Jordan) with my pen and candle, it doesn’t make any money. It’s time just for me and for the words. I used the pages to try and make sense of myself – verbatim.

I learned to record my first thoughts, sentences that made no logical sense or lines that I didn’t believe when I wrote them – words that were surprising or confusing, words I liked the sound or feel of – just write it, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t move out of this place of deep connectedness with who I really am (which wasn’t pretty after all, but was, in fact, quite a mess). I kept going. Sometimes when I wrote exactly what came to me to write, I got to be surprised by what my subconscious offered – images or metaphors that made me make sense, or words that complicated some part of my life I had thought was together and fixed.

Writing myself whole has meant writing myself loose: messy, poetic, contradictory, confused, questioning.

When I talk about daily writing, I say simply that it saved me. Writing has been the place I trusted the most, and most consistently. And I have been fortunate to live with significant others who treated my writing with respect, who did not read journal, who treated them as if they were as private and inviolate as the inside of my own beating heart. I have rarely shared with anyone what I write in these notebooks – the morning writing was a place for me to work things out, my companion, my best friend’s ear, a steady companion who did not judge or criticize or interrupt or tell me what to do. I have needed this kind of sacred and protected, nonjudgmental space – meaning I have needed to learn how to treat my whole self as sacred, to release myself from judgment.

You’ve learned all the recommendations. Write every day. Nulla dies sine linea: no day without lines. Julia Cameron says three unbroken pages every morning. Anne Lamott says to try and sit down at about the same time every day, in order to train your creative unconscious to kick in for you. Natalie Goldberg says, “My goal is to write every day. I say it is my ideal. I am careful not to pass judgment or create anxiety if I do not do it. No one lives up to his ideal.” There are other productive and producing writers who don’t write every day, and who say that the pressure to do so hasn’t served them.

You find what works for you for awhile, and do that. And then what works for your writing will change.

I don’t allow too many days without writing – when I do, I begin to lose track of parts of myself. I begin to believe too much in my surfaces, my public performances, my personae. Writing practice brings me back into the mess of my human realness: I don’t have all the answers, I am still complicated and ridiculous and loving, I am not as shiny as (I think) my packaging appears, thank goodness.

Even after all these years of daily practice, I still struggle to give myself what I need: those earliest morning hours devoted to the skin between dreamtime and waking life. Every morning I get to decide to show up for my creative and healing self all over again.

What works for your writing practice? Do you write every day? Do you want to? What would that mean for your writing and yourself?

babayagaSmall

steal your writing time

Good morning good morning good morning — the summer morning outside my window is grey and sounds like the whistle of a train passing through Jack London Square. What is rising for you this morning? What is falling away?

I am entering into a couple-day writing retreat: two days focused on a couple of book projects, two days of stealing away from my regular life, two days in which I give myself permission not to feel guilty if I spend time writing rather than doing other work. This is a stay-at-home writing retreat, and will be interrupted by a trip to the vet and a few other tasks (mostly involving prep for writing groups); still, my primary focus for these next two days will be on moving these books forward.

How often do you give yourself permission for a day to focus on writing? How often do you give yourself permission for thirty minutes, or ten? How often do you feel as though you are stealing time from something, or someone, else in order to write?

How often do you actually sit down in front of the page and just let the words flow? I’m not talking about an email or an essay for school or a grant proposal — I’m talking about playing on the page, responding to prompts shared here on this blog or elsewhere, writing down that poem you began to dream during the commute home or the exchange you witnessed between that old man and young checker at the grocery store or the memory you had of your mother the summer you were six and she took the day off from work just so that the two of you could spend a day at the pool, or was it the beach? How often do you think, I should write that down, and don’t?

How often does it happen that then, when you’ve finally decided to take those ten minutes to get your body in front of the page, you find you have nothing to say, nothing to write — all those great things you wanted to write about when you were in the shower or busy working on a spreadsheet or talking with your bestie on the phone just disappeared! It’s just you and your pen and the blank page and the emptiness in your head. Do you think to yourself, Who am I kidding? What makes me think I’m a writer? Why did I ever tell anyone that I want to write? Look at me — I can’t even move my pen.

Does that emptiness make you want to quit trying? How frustrated does this cycle of guilt and larceny make you feel?

I have a challenge for you today, you who wish to write, you who have words dancing under your skin and a lifetime of terror and disappointment and fear keeping the words from pushing out, stained and broken and imperfect, onto the page: I want you to take ten minutes today. Ten. That’s all. Ten minutes for this writing thing you love.

I want you to change one thing about your daily routine just so that you have those ten minutes. Turn of the tv a little bit early. Get to the gym a little bit late. Take your notebook and pen into the bathroom and lock the door. Get sneaky if you have to, to get these ten minutes where you will not be interrupted by family or friends. Tell yourself that you’ll get a reward after if you write for just ten minutes (and then make good on that reward!) — a half hour of silly television or reading the magazine that came in the mail today or hanging out doing a project with your kids or a dish of ice cream or some pieces of really good dark chocolate or … you know what would make the best reward for you. Of course, even better is the reward your creative genius receives: she gets to see that you will give her some time, that you are wiling to carve out ten minutes to listen to her rambling, generous voice.

Open the notebook and begin writing from the phrase, “This is what she stole…” or “This is what he stole…” (or “we stole” or “you stole” or “they stole…”). Complete that sentence with a single item or a list, and if you don’t know what to write next, start again. “They stole diapers and they stole time. We stole glossy, foil-wrapped Cadbury eggs from the convenience store up the road at Eastertime. He stole…”

Ten minutes. Set a timer. Stop when the time is up, period. If you’re really into the writing, break off in the middle of the sentence, and begin again when you steal another ten minutes tomorrow.

Keep on stealing these ten minute snatches. Do this day after day. Take twenty minutes some days. Take an hour. Take a weekend. Grab it. Demand that time for this thing that you love. One day you will find that making time for your writing doesn’t feel like theft, it feels like life-giving and promise. One day, you will find that taking time from writing is what feels more like theft.

babayagaSmall

taking breaks and being selfish

Good morning this beautiful morning — how is the sun singing to you this morning? How are you letting yourself into the sky’s day?

I am back to this blog writing after a bit of a vacation — I’m sorry for the long absence. I went back east for about a week, and got to nestle and swim in the New England summer. During vacation I read a lot, swam in the Pacific, visited with friends and family, sunbathed, walked in the rain — I wrote, too, though not on the computer.

I don’t like to spend much time on the computer while I’m on vacation; I take myself offline, and though I keep my phone close at hand so I can take pictures, I avoid email and my social networking apps. Being away from the (perceived) demands of social media allows me to take a real break, to slow down, to pay a different kind of attention. I feel less scattered when I’m offline — though it can take a day or so for the quality of my awareness to recalibrate from easily distractable and multi-task-oriented toward something more focused and yet with a wider peripheral vision. I begin to walk more slowly. I turn away from the screens, letting my eyes open back to the real world that surrounds me.

I tend to feel guilty for taking these sorts of media-input breaks, like I’m in avoidance mode. This is an old feeling, and comes from the years in college when I would, in fact, avoid the phone and email so that I could tell my stepfather that I honestly hadn’t been aware of his many and varied attempts to contact me. I would turn the phone’s ringer off and turn down the volume on the answering machine. This was before voice mail, though — I wasn’t able to avoid hearing the cassette tape whir into motion once the recorded greeting started to play, and I couldn’t turn down the tape as it recorded his message to me, sometimes sweet and wheedling, sometimes threatening and angry. So I’d leave the apartment, wandering the streets of my small college town for hours, holing up in cafes where I wrote and wrote and wrote, always aware of what I was doing: avoiding the phone, not being where my abuser wanted me to be.

In her book World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, Christian McEwen writes: “The practicing artist is, by definition, someone who is able to build a life around his or her own creative work. Inevitably, such a person will have considered his or her attitude to time. What matters is not how much they actually have, but how best to inhabit it and make it spacious: how to allow room in which attention can take root.”

By necessity, during those years, I learned the power of making time for my generative, creative life — even all these years later, though, the powerful and useful practice of taking space from communicative devices can be, for me, tinged with guilt and shame: I internalized the sense that I’m running away from something or someone, that when I make space for my creative self, I am taking something from someone else.

You don’t have to have an abuser telling you that you’re selfish for not being at their beck and call to have this particular lesson take hold: we get this message from our work, our families, our communities — that we are selfish if we say we need time for our art, particularly when the time we need looks to someone outside our own head like time being wasted on a walk in the woods or reading poetry or daydreaming or otherwise creating the sort of open, woolgathering headspace and heartspace necessary for generating creative work.

How do we unlearn this message, that time not spent doing work that benefits someone else is time wasted? Or that time spent in our creative process is time spent selfishly? Or that being selfish with our time is always a bad thing?

How do you challenge that idea?

After all these years, I still have to breathe deep into the anxiety that when I get done with my writing time, I’m going to have to deal with someone’s fury. I don’t — if someone is going to be angry with me for taking the time I need to write, I gently encourage them not to be in my life anymore. Sometimes I succumb to the fear of selfishness: I stop taking the time I need to write, in favor of spending time with other people. After several days of this, I hit overload. Every. Single. Time. I become cranky, achy, short-tempered, and less able to concentrate on anything or anyone. I end up needing lots of time to myself in order to come back into balance.

It’s kind of like the way I still sometimes binge, when I’m feeling really bad about myself, which then reminds me that my body doesn’t respond well to that kind of overstuffing — that that coping mechanism doesn’t serve me anymore, and I deserve to take care of my body in other ways.

I have to learn and relearn these lessons: when I allow myself the practices that I need in order to be in balance — which includes both “free” time (which is the playtime that my psyche needs in order to keep the words flowing) and writing time — then I am better able to engage in my relationships.  Not everyone works this way, but I do.

What do you need in order to fully inhabit your creative self? Can you write about those conditions and desires for ten minutes or so today? Notice how your body feels when you write about what helps our writing to flow… and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

Thank you for going as slow as you need to go. Thank you for your words, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

babayagaSmall

taking care of all of our creative self

It’s a bird party outside my window this morning. The house finches have taken over the live oak and are demanding to be heard, demanding to be taken seriously. The are tangling with their small constituencies, assuring themselves of their song. They flit back and forth between bird feeder and branch, establishing intimacies and hierarchies, listening to belly and instinct. They bring some bright into the grey out there.

Good Friday morning to you. How has this week been treating you?

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If you’re in the Bay Area, don’t forget to come over to Berkeley tomorrow and join AWA West and PSR as we celebrate the launch of Pat Schneider‘s new book, How The Light Gets In: Writing As A Spiritual Practice. The event is free, and meets at the PSR campus at 1798 Scenic Ave. in Berkeley. The afternoon writing groups are full (though you can probably get your name on a waiting list if you hurry), but you can certainly join us for the reception and reading tomorrow evening. Pat will read from the book, and then she’ll have a conversation with Cary Tennis about Amherst Writers and Artists, writing practice, and so much more. Writing Ourselves Whole will have a table at the event — come on over and say hi if you’re able to make it! There are a few more copies of the Fierce Hunger chapbook left and I’ll have those available for sale, as well as information about the Summer workshop schedule. I hope to see you!

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This morning I got back into my notebook for the first time in about a week. I’d been feeling especially gross, all the inside voices telling me that it didn’t matter if I wrote, that my work doesn’t mean anything, that my time would be better spent with a bowl of chocolate frosting and some terrible television. Do you get the inside voices taking up all the space between your ears and around your heart? How do you take care of yourself  when they get especially loud and demanding? Continue reading “taking care of all of our creative self”