blog

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#metoo #havewesaiditenoughnow? #doyoubelieveus?

stencil graffiti of a women's symbol with a fist in the center of the circle, surrounded by the words, Good morning. No birds outside yet this morning, just BART and smoke.

I open the notebook, write for a few minutes, then turn to the laptop. Here’s the place that wants me to spin and groove.

If only I could find a way to write about every single sex assault story. I could be that person, that journalist, that commentator. Right? You’re supposed to become an expert in your niche, that’s what all the business coaches say. And so I try. I search for “sexual violence.” If there’s a worse mistake, it’s just searching for “woman” when looking for images to include with the blog post (and I say to myself, you should know better, Jen, like somehow I’m to blame for the fact that Google has algorithmed pictures from porn shoots and autopsies into the results, has tagged those as, simply, “woman.”)

Yesterday, while at work, I was scrolling through the Facebook feed of my department’s page, looking for things to share with the community — upcoming events, important stories, anything of use. Instead I scrolled through lots of photos with quotes on them and news stories about violence against women. I’m used to that, though, so I kept going, until I hit the one that made me hit the ceiling. There’s always one, isn’t there? No, there’s always way more than just one.

What if I started a new trend: sharing, in these social media spaces, detailed stories about women doing violence to the men who attack them. We can include graphic photos and deliberately-devastating/misleading/horrific headlines. Could we possibly make a dent in the stream of stories about violence against women — to which I myself contribute! — whether on social media or on the nightly (what does that even mean anymore, nightly news?) or on tv or in the movies?

My heroes today are Aileen Wuornos, Valerie Solanas, Lorena Bobbitt. I’m not supposed to say these things. I’m not supposed to want violence. I’m not supposed to want to kill the men who harm women, children, other men. I’m not supposed to want them dead. I’m supposed to want them rehabilitated. I’m supposed to want them contrite and apologetic, so that I can expend the precious energy of this lifetime helping them to learn from their “mistakes” so they can “do better next time.” I’m supposed to want to take a job making $12 an hour working for some crisis line so they can call and ask what they were supposed to do when they saw her lying there in the snow, drunk and passed out; were they really supposed to just walk by? “No,” I say, “you could call someone to help her get home safe.” “Oh,” they say. “I didn’t think of that.”

I’m supposed to model something different for the boys in my life, the boys who are coming up around me. I’m supposed to be the safe thing, the woman. I’m supposed to be the place where violence doesn’t happen — well, the place that doesn’t create violence. I mean, I’m a woman — of course violence happens here in this place of me. It’s almost a redundancy. Doesn’t woman mean violence-done-to?

It’s so fucking ridiculous. The anger rides me like I’m some kind of animal — and yes, in fact, I am some kind of animal. Civilization is about reigning that animal in. Is about saying, Sure, you’re angry, but you’re a woman. You’re better than that. You take the high ground. You go high when they go low. Because if you try to go low with them, they’ll kill you. They haven’t been civilized like you’ve been.

I’m supposed to make a statement here of apology, of clarification. I’m supposed to open the door and clear out a space for the men who haven’t done harm to women, and who are actively working to end violence against women. Those men, of course, must have their own unleveled, unwashed anger toward other men. I would like to read their angry writing someday. I can imagine those men can understand this anger here. Those men who have been harmed by other men — they recognize themselves in this anger. They understand that they are not its target — and, too, they see how they carry the same surface tension, the same potential privilege of the men who do harm, and they wonder what they do with that privilege, how they walk in the world with it, how they use it to make things better instead of making things worse. They are not the sort of men who tell an angry woman to shut up because their anger is frightening them. Anger is a frightening thing if you have been raised with men, with any people who treat their anger as an excuse to go in the world (or, much more often, stay in their homes) and do harm.

The headline that sent me over the edge when I was scrolling through FB yesterday said, and I’m not going to look it up to confirm or link to the fucking thing for you, “Father stopped from abusing daughter says, ‘Well, it was fun while it lasted.’”

(I’m going to pause here for your shouting and righteous outrage.)

Someone thought that was a good headline. Someone thought, That’s clickbait if I ever fucking saw it. Someone saw dollar signs with that headline. Someone thought of it, showed it to an editor, and the editor hollered with joy — that’s perfect! And so I scroll through the newsfeed of a spirituality program, come across a posting from the woman’s news network, and they have decided to share a post with this headline. They are doing the violator’s work for them.

It’s all I can do not to start screaming in the office.  I stand up, I say, “Ok, ok, that’s enough,” I talk to myself within hearing of others, I become the embodiment of the borderline crazy girl. I log out of FB, I turn off the computer, I stand up, I have to move. I manage to stay in the building — here’s the crazy part! — I stay in the building. I go downstairs to watch the Tibetan monks who are building a sand mandala in the art gallery/foyer/first floor of our building. I listen to them rub metal bars against the ridges of the sand-dispensing cones. I watch them and wonder, which of your disciples have you harmed?

I can’t stay there for long but I don’t leave the building. I take a deep breath and I swallow the rage because we can’t always go crazy when we get mad, right? This is what always triggered looks like these days — I manage to stay in the building, and go back to fucking work. I don’t slam out of the doors, stomp down the street, screaming at the top of my lungs, are you fucking kidding me?

So many of us are restraining this longing, this urge: to kick down the doors, to do violence where violence has been done, to disrupt business as usual. That’s what Occupy was about, in part: disrupting business as usual. But we have been constraining this desire for years, for decades, haven’t we? And so we swallow the rage and become the face of depression. We are the unhappy voice on the other end of the phone when you call for tech support, we are the sharp side glance when you shove past us on the BART, we are the horizontal hostility, we are the isolated, we are the ones curled up on the bed, we are the chronically ill, the chronically in pain. That shit is anger. It’s fury. It’s rage. And we don’t know what to do with it. So we swallow it, just like we were trained.

Who gets raised with the ability to express anger well in this country? What does that even mean?

I’m not going to kill anyone, and I don’t want you to kill anyone either. It feels important to declare this in this era of extreme and everyday violence. But I can look with some appreciation and gratitude at women who decided they weren’t taking anymore.

Here’s what I do instead. I pound out these words and I say the unsayable things and that helps.

I wonder what the use of certain social media is. Yesterday my FB feed was filled with stories of violence done to the bodies of women (or folks thought to be women at the time of the violence). We want to prove to anyone who doesn’t yet understand (who doesn’t understand?) that sexual violence is so prevalent as to be almost every woman’s norm, so we (one more time) haul out our stories of the violences done to us.

It’s not that I don’t think sharing our stories, when we choose to, can be deeply cathartic and transformative. It’s that when we’ve been called to share these intimate and painful stories in yet another attempt to prove to some naysayer that this violence is a constant in our lives (because they need the details in order to believe us, they need to hear it, give me more details, show me the video, please), then I just feel taken advantage of.

I’ve seen this happen several times on FB, where we (women and folks thought to be women when assaulted) are expected to jump on a hashtag bandwagon with our story of violence in order to prove that sexual violence is happening to everyone around us all of the time.

Because of the work I do, and because FB only feeds me the faces and voices of people who they deem agreeable to me based on my posting history, I didn’t come across the voices of the naysayers yesterday, the voices of folks claiming sexual harassment isn’t common. I did come across men who seemed astonished at the numbers of their female (or once thought to be female) friends who have faced this violence and walk around the world with it holding on to them like a leash. These are activist friends, these are folks who have been in the work of undoing violence in the world — and they can still be surprised by these stories? Have they been willfully ignoring this information? Why listen to us now?

Anita Hill told us this is a constant in the workplace for women. But she wasn’t believed, and still we are demanding that women give us the juicy details before we’ll deign to consider possibly believing them.

It can’t just be one woman. It has to be five, seventeen, thirty, a hundred, several thousand all telling you the same fucking story, and still you’re going to sit there and be astonished when your friend tells you that her boss, her twenty-seven year old boss at the tech start up (where she is “so lucky” to have been hired, because there were so many good guys in line for the position, but she came across like one of the guys in the interview and laughed at the joke he made about getting their numbers of women up), she tells you that this guy (this young guy, raised in the aftermath of Antioch, ostensibly raised to know which way is up and righteous when it comes to women, raised to respect women, right?), this guy wants her to put on something low-cut when the investors come in for a site visit. Or he wants to know I she’ll bring some of her dumber girlfriends to the holiday party so he can get some of “his guys” there in the office laid. Whatever. Did you think something is changing?

I understand the impetus behind #metoo, the need for critical mass, and one thing this sort of campaign can do is give survivors a sense of solidarity. Even if you don’t post your own #metoo story, you can scroll through your friends and beloveds and see that you are not alone. If that’s what this is for, then I am behind it 100%.

If it’s to prove something to men, or to those folks of all genders who are rape(-ist)-apologists, then I say fuck that.

It’s like the good friend who really wants to believe you when you say that your partner has been abusing you, but they’ve never seen it, and nothing like this has ever happened to them, and they’ve known your partner fora  long time — can’t you show them some evidence? Can’t you prove what you’re saying? Because your word isn’t enough.

When will our words be enough?

Your words are enough today, and they are important, and they are necessary. Just for this moment, if not for longer, today, consider not apologizing for your rage. I’m grateful for the ways you make room for others’ rage as well. And I am grateful, every minute, for your words.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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in which jen loses her sh*t

Painted on a white wall, graffiti of a person wearing a tank top and mask and holding a bat, under and next to the words: It’s all I can do this morning to keep myself together.

I make black tea for the day, because I’m out of my loose green; Irish breakfast, to go with the soda bread I made last night. All I can do these days is eat. That’s a thing I’m good at: the decisions don’t ruin my life, and I don’t get paralyzed trying to figure out what to eat next. The eating helps me feel just bad enough about myself, but also kills the other awful feelings, the anxiety, the triggeredness.

My editor tells me she wants me to write about this Harvey Weinstein thing. Write about the latest story of a sexual predator that everyone is surprised about. Wait, the guy who promoted Hunting Ground is a sexual super-predator? Are we supposed to act shocked, we who live our lives in the aftermath of manhandling by people like these? Are we supposed to believe all the shock and dismay from various high-powered folks in the entertainment industry? What kind of story can I write about this?

It’s not that I’m cynical — it’s that our country was founded and run by men who believed it was acceptable to own other humans — who believed they ought to have sexual access to whatever they wanted, access to the bodies of other humans they deemed somehow other or less than human — and by the women who stood by their side. And so here we are now, some two-hundred and forty-five years later, wondering why a guy like this can go on assaulting women for thirty years without being stopped. Fox News is sounding the alarm — Hollywood is full of sexual hypocrites! Fox News, ladies and gentlefolks – yes. That’s the world we live in, that the guy who has been accused of sexual predation can point his finger at the last or the latest guy to be accused and somehow we’re supposed to wipe the slate clean, like we can only have rom in our tiny brains for one predatory bastard at a time, like we’re supposed to believe it’s a right-wing or left-wing problem. Of course we’re supposed to believe it’s not a problem on the left — which is why so-called liberal sexual predators like Bill Clinton and Woody Allen and … let’s just not continue the list. It’s too fucking long, too fucking depressing. Why they are allowed to go on doing the work that they love, why people go on lauding them?

I don’t know if I belong here anymore — where is here, Jen? America? the planet? Where can you go, where’s the country where people aren’t excusing acts of sexual predation? Where people aren’t making films with rape at the heart of them and we call them comedies? Where we don’t see rape as sport or simple sexual miscommunication or misunderstanding or an acceptable weapon of war? (As though there’s such a thing as an acceptable weapon of war.) Where we don’t politicize the latest revealed rape so as to advance our political cause?

I am tired today. I don’t want to have discussions about how to end rape culture, what women can do, what the victims are supposed to do.

Do you want to end rape culture? Here how that goes: men, stop raping people.

How about that? Just don’t. Just don’t. Stop believing that the people around you are there to service your sexual or power needs.

How’s that going to work, America? Do you think we can do that?

Parents, stop teaching your masculine-leaning children that they get to do what they want to and with the bodies of others. Stop teaching your feminine-leaning children how to navigate the sexually-predatory expectations of others — teach them self-defense instead. Don’t teach them to bow their heads and walk in shame. Teach them to scream.

Women who are harassed or assaulted by extremely powerful men and then manage to rise in their industry of choice: once you have power, it’s your responsibility to hold that predator accountable. Jane Fonda says she’s ashamed she didn’t say anything about this harassment sooner. Angeline Jolie was assaulted by this man. But they said and did nothing, not even after years and after they rose in stature and power, and so more women, many many more women after them had to suffer, many of them leaving the work they loved.

We are not to blame for the violence done to us. We are not to blame for the actions of others. We are responsible for our own behavior, however. It’s not victim-blaming to believe that people in any community who know that there’s a predator in their midst ought to pass the word to newcomers to the community, if they’re not going to raise the alarm otherwise. (Of course, we see what good it did when folks raised the alarm to the so-called authorities — thank you, NYPD and LAPD).

My editor wants me to write about this, but I’d avoided reading any of the articles about this story because I didn’t want the fucking details. I didn’t want to know the kinds of things these women were expected to do for decades that no one held H.W. accountable for, that he was given a pass on over and over and over again. But, I think, she thinks I should do it, so let me just skim through the headlines. Let me look at a few of the stories. My breath gets shallow, my body gets tight. I ignore these things because I think this is something that I’m supposed to do. If that’s not triggering, I don’t know what is — well, until I get into one of the stories and in the first paragraph, maybe in the first two lines, read a detail of his assault on one woman that leaves me in a flashback/body memory so strong that it’s all I can do not to throw everything around me — my computer, my monitor, my cup of tea, the lamp, the mirror, everything — against the wall, shattering it all, making as much noise as possible and screaming as loud as I can just to get this shit out of my body again. But it’s there, and I’m a responsible adult who doesn’t do those things, and so I go upstairs as soon as the other people in my house leave for the day, and I eat. I make many pieces of toast, I get a bag of popcorn, I eat until I am full, until the feeling that hurts is in my belly and I am awash in the shame again of eating too much because that is easier for me to deal with than the memory of the predator my mother married doing just the same thing to me.

Patton Oswalt says, in an interview this week, that he can’t imagine how women do it, how they walk around with such rage, how they function. First, I wonder who he’s harming behind closed doors. Then I want to tell him, we eat. We stuff. We shop. We cut. we pretend. We fuck. We act nice and exercise too much, starving ourselves. We do anything and everything we can not to go crazy every fucking time we watch another man treat another women like shit, watch another woman apologize for that man and pretend like what he’s doing is ok. Just to keep from tearing the whole fucking thing down.

It was all I could do yesterday not to lose my shit. This is one of those weeks. I just have to sit here with the adrenaline in my arms and back and jaw, grinding my teeth, trying to decide what to do when someone makes a joke about this guy or calls it “casting couch behavior” or calls the women stupid, or when I read about one woman telling another, this is just the way it’s done here. If you want to get ahead, go ahead and just give him the fucking massage. Because I’m going to guarantee you that women said that to each other. My sister went through this shit in a different segment of the entertainment world in LA — just suck it up, she was told, that’s part of the game. And when she wanted to call foul on the game, went to the authorities, tried hold accountable the man who had been harassing and predatory towards her, not one woman would stand with her. And so she left the industry that she loved

Now I want to throw the machine against the wall again. This is a difficult morning for writing.

How do we do it how do we do it how do we do it on the days we are so angry we could destroy everything around us, we who have been taught to take our anger out on ourselves rather than on the people who have harmed us and harmed those we love? How do we do it when what we know is to stuff, to drink, to cut, to depress, to starve, to run too hard or lift too much, otherwise punish ourselves for this righteous rage?

Of course we have every right to be outraged, to be furious — so very many of us do, for so very many different reasons. But we are supposed to be polite and show that we are assimilated to polite white culture which was designed and cultivated to protect white men and women in power, and so we don’t come into to the room raving. We don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. We don’t want them to question our sanity — because of course, it’s insane to be outraged that a man, one more man (among the how many more, let’s be serious, now we’re talking about Hollywood/politics/spiritual community/military/tech/on and on) has been allowed to continue his fucking disgusting until the winds shift just enough and someone finally feels brave enough to come forward and politics are such that she will be listened to and suddenly the people who’ve been holding his silences for him come forward, too, and pretend like they’re shocked, perform this dance of public shaming.

We should be shaming all of them. The men who do this are only able to continue for as long as they do because of other’s silences. Period. Our silences create the bubble in which they continue to act. We hold their power for them We create it. And we can take it away from them.

We can hold these people accountable. We can say no more. We can say, we’re not going to buy your music or watch your shows or vote for you or go to your movies or read your books or listen to your comedy albums we’re not going to reward you for gaining fame and power on the backs of the people you have assaulted and shamed.

I’ll tell you what, Patton Oswalt — I don’t know how we do it either. I just don’t know. There is not a single fucking place women can go that is safe from predatory male behavior. Not one. Every industry you can name has men who have risen the ranks while smearing their grease and filth and bodily fluids and smarmy bullshit on others along the way, and people turned their heads because they wanted to come along for the ride. We see the same fucking thing happening in Congress, in the US government — all these men who stood up and pretended to be shocked, shocked!, that a man so close to the presidency could so proudly and easily name his entitlement to women’s bodies, and then they turned around, swallowed that outrage, walked over to the corner of the room labeled “locker room talk,”and said, well, it’s not so bad, and anyway, it was such a long time ago, I mean, no more tapes have come forward — which means, of course, that nothing else has happened.

No tape, it didn’t happen. Got a  tape? Who cares. Assaulted by a man in power? Better hope he assaulted fifty other women just the same way he assaulted you, and that those women are willing to stand up with you, because otherwise, there’s not a goddamn thing anybody’s going to do for you. The voice of one woman telling the truth? Muriel Rukeyser is weeping — it doesn’t do a fucking thing in this particular America. We’re too worried that the perpetrator’s rights might get trampled on. We don’t want to obstruct their right to assault with freedom, Their right to assault over decades, their right to assert their manhood. We don’t want emasculated men in this country, do we? We want our men to be men! We want cowboys! We want soldiers! We want rapists!

But were going to turn around and pretend like the rapists are coming in to the country from the outside, as though we don’t grow our own right here,

I’m tired today, my friends. I’m so fucking angry and tired. It’s not a difficult problem, rape culture, it’s simply that this behavior has been entrenched in our definition of manhood for maybe as long as we’ve understood there to be such a thing as a man. And I’m tired of women bending over backwards trying to figure how to explain it, how to make sense of it for the assailants and their apologists. The assailants know exactly what they’re doing. No one needs to be educated — they know what they are doing, they are doing it because they can, and will continue doing it as long as they can. We have not made it painful enough to be called rapist, to be called sexual predator.

When do we say Enough? With our sons? With our son’s sons? When will there be enough good men that they turn the tide? That they set down this male/masculine privilege to beat and punch and shame and shit on and put hands on and and rape and discard? When do we stop shaking our heads and saying, well, boys will be boys — when? How much longer?

How can I read the news? How can I see it over and over again, this one, that one, violating student, daughter, infant, choir boy, soldier, new employee, intern, coworker, partner, wife…? I’m so tired of having to walk through the world like this is all acceptable somehow, like every woman, every man, every person of any gender whatsoever shouldn’t be screaming in the middle of the street, just fucking stop. Just stop acting like the bodies of other people are those to use and dispose of as you wish. I’m talking about rape culture and I’m talking about misogynist culture and I’m talking about white supremacist culture.

I wrote, in a piece that was published earlier this month, that I would love it if, for just a  moment, every survivor of sexual violence was illuminated by a bright glow — so we could all see each other, so we could see how many of us there are, so we could revel and grieve in our numbers, and our power. Then would we smash the church and smash the state?

But what if, then, for a moment, the same was done for the perpetrators, those who believed, at any point and in any way over the course of their lives, that it was ok to sexually touch or grab or speak to or assault another being. How much overlap would there be? Would we be surprised at their numbers, at the “good” men who stood there awash in the sickly greenish light, at the numbers of women, at the numbers of queers? What would we do with them, if we knew who they were?

How hard is it to decide to stop harming other people? Just ask the white folks who run the country, the folks in the police departments, the folks who run the prisons, just ask capitalism. We love money and power more than we love our families, more than we love our fellow human or any other animal, more than we love the planet that is just about done, it seems these days, sustaining us. And those with the money and power just only want to keep it.

Just stop. It would be so easy to stop. But these people are raised to be addicts — they are addicted to the privilege and the blinders and bodies that come along with it. They don’t want to take the blinders off and they don’t want to have to put the privilege down. When do we who are or have been harmed by them say Enough?

I’m grateful for your rage today, and the ways you make room for the righteous rage of others. Be easy with you — think about turning the rage out of your body in ways that don’t harm others, and don’t harm you. Shout, scream, write, paint, draw, tear up pillows, smash plates, scream again. Just for one minute, don’t turn it back inside yourself, the way you were trained to. I stand with you in your rage. And I am grateful for your words.

 

 

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we show up for our creative beauty

graffiti painted on a wall that of a village at night,stars and moon overhead, trees in the foreground
Homage to a Starry Night, Santa Monica (flickr)

Good morning, good morning. What’s the day opening up like where you are? Here there’s a chill in the air after a too-hot yesterday, and the birds are still recuperating, I think — I haven’t heard a single one wake up yet. Wait, there they are…

It’s been hard to write recently. I sit down at the desk in the morning and all the words evaporate from my head. I try to sneak up on them, the way you might with a skittish cat or a butterfly or a hummingbird resting at the tip of a bottlebrush tree branch, but they slip away from me as soon as I get close enough to see what they might look like. The writing just isn’t coming.

Still, I dutifully show up at the desk most mornings, I sit down with the candle and notebook or this quieted keyboard.  I come down here anyway, even though I’m not feeling the urgency. This is the part about showing up anyway, about being true to the thing in you that’s going to want to sing eventually. I’m not sure what stories or essays are going to want to come next, but I hold the channel open, that’s what someone suggested once: You have to keep the channel open.

I have been feeling very bad about the fact that I’m not “really” writing — developing nothing much new for publication or sharing on this blog, no new submissions, no new words. I rage regularly when listening to the news or reading the paper, but then I show up here at the keyboard in the mornings, and the words slip out from under my fingers, they pull away like a shadow under sunlit scrutiny, they hide under the folds of depression, under the fragments of despair, they leave me to walk in the nightmorning alone. I have been stuck for weeks in the old story, in a painful story, in the story that says I am worthless and nothing I do matters. I have been afraid and lost ever since well before the book came out. And when I’m not writing, I tend to feel even worse about myself. Somedays I come down and just sit in the dark and listen to the nightsounds outside, watch the candle, some mornings I can just rock in the chair and sip my tea. Then I spend the day beating myself up for not writing.

I read a story this weekend about Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night: apparently people are visiting the MOMA in New York  just to take selfies with the painting, not to look at it. Not to see it. What caught my attention in the piece, though, were Vincent’s words, his hopelessness, how he felt unseen, unwanted, unappreciated as an artist: “One comfort for someone who loves Van Gogh,” the author says, “and can’t see over the crowd’s shoulders and heads is to recall the artist’s deep misery that his work would never be noticed. ‘What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity,’ he despaired, ‘an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have.'”

I thought I should cut those words out and hang them over my desk, to see when I am feeling low, when I am in the dark times, when I am in the trough, to remember how many of us feel this way, and how often.

What am I realizing this morning is that, even though the it’s been hard to create much recently, I have still kept faith with the writing. I have kept to my part in the covenant. Even when depression fills me to the brim, even when I am feeling so hopeless that writing can accomplish anything at all — just look at the world; what can this writing possibly do? — I still get up before the dawn, make my tea, light the candles, and open the notebook to a new page or open a blank notepad document here on the computer. I try again. Maybe this morning will be different. Maybe this morning the words will come.

Sometimes I have to force myself to write my three pages. Sometimes I can’t or won’t even do that. But my body is here. The channel is open. I remain faithful to something hopeful in me that wants to be with the words, that trusts they will come back, that still believes in what words can do — for me, and in the world.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been walking with the puppy out by the bay in the mornings after I write. At about 7, she gets up, shakes the sleep off her fur, and walks over to me, leans her head hard into my calves. It’s time, it’s time. So we get ready and go out into the early sunrise. We walk on quiet morning fields, we watch sea lions in the swelling bay water scoop up fish for breakfast, and pelicans land like splashing-down space capsules before gliding off like swans. I move this good body that I have spent so many years beating up. I think about how I’m going to Write More Now Goddamnit. And then I throw the ball again for the puppy, who launches herself up to retrieve it out of the air with so much delight in the Right Now.

I put one foot in front of the other, I keep going, even when everything looks hopeless. And this morning I can recognize the faith inherent in that. the hope there. I can beat myself up for not doing enough, or I can look around the edges of those old voices and see how I have been keeping faith with my creative self, showing up for her even when she is (justifiably) scared that she won’t be listened to or certain that her words won’t do any good — the world is still going to be an awful place when she gets up from the keyboard and blows out the candle. Sure, I think, but somewhere, maybe, there’s someone who wanted companionship in the midst of this awfulness. Somewhere there is a story that wants to live in the world.

We keep going. We show up even when the words are rough going. We show up even when everything tells us not to bother. We show up for truth and our creative beauty even when the world around us looks like all and only devastation.

Thank you, this morning, for the times you take a deep breath and have faith in something tender and necessary: the generosity of your voice, the playfulness your words can bring, the brilliant beauty that wouldn’t exist if you don’t let it emerge through your fingers (and any other creative mode in which you discover beauty and truth). Thank you for your spaciousness with this process, with yourself. Thank you, today, for your words.

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teach them toxic masculinity is not their due

red stop sigh with a white hand in the middle of the red, and an eye drawn in the middle of the hand.(Just a heads-up: there’s language about rape and sexual violence in this morning’s post. Be easy with you, ok?)

It’s morning on a Monday, and I’m at the computer again. I open the window to get a little feel of the outside. And to try and hear the owls. It’s rush outside right now, just road.

Yesterday in the paper I read an opinion piece by a man who, when he was in college, worked with the rape crisis center and led trainings with frat brothers. The writer described the need for education, that the young men he worked with, as much as they didn’t want to see him there — he called himself the ultimate buzz kill at the party — they still, many of them, needed what he was selling: they didn’t know what rape meant. They didn’t know that a drunk woman couldn’t consent to sex. They didn’t know a woman could say she wanted to have sex and then change her mind. They didn’t know that a woman shouldn’t have to physically fight them off in order to communicate her desire not to have sex.

The op-ed was responding to Betsy DeVos’s recalling of the “Dear Colleague” guidelines for dealing with rape on college campuses, because she wants to make sure that the rights of assailants (I’m sorry, of “the accused”) are well tended to. As though perpetrators of rape haven’t been tended to and cared for and given all benefits, in the law and society at large, since forever. But good, now they can be assured of greater protection (again) at college — as though most rapes (on college campuses or anywhere else) still don’t go unreported. As though anyone who is raped doesn’t blame themselves for getting drunk, for wearing the wrong thing, for not saying no soon enough or loud enough or enough times or enough enough enough.

We are not even close to the place where perpetrators (whether on college campuses or in Silicon Valley) need to be concerned that their rights don’t have pre-eminence in society.

I read the op-ed by the rape educator with the same rage that rises up in me whenever someone claims that, if we want to end rape, we just need to teach men how not to rape. I just don’t buy it. Men know that rape is not ok. We all know that rape is not ok. Don’t tell me that, by the age of 18, anyone in this country (or, frankly, anywhere in the world) doesn’t know that it’s not all right to fuck someone who doesn’t want you to fuck them. These are lessons we get as children — hands are not for hitting, don’t take what isn’t yours, take no for an answer, be gentle and kind with one another. This has got to be the most consent-aware generation of men, of people, that there has ever been. And yet assault on campus continues to be wildly prevalent.

Educate these men about patriarchy instead. Educate them about the history of societies that have indoctrinated them down to their bone structure and cells with the idea that women (and children, and other men) are theirs for the taking, the breaking open, for their use. Let them speak of their own violations at the hands of men, what it took for them to become men, what they are afraid of, what they think masculinity means, how they got the idea that rape is their right.   Let men have spaces in which to grieve their perceived (and real) losses, that they are no longer allowed to have what their fathers and grandfathers had or took, that they are expected to behave differently if they want to participate in society. Let them learn to view toxic masculinity with a critical eye. Teach them that toxic masculinity is not their due.

I don’t believe that men need to be told what rape is and that it isn’t ok. I do think men need support not to follow the pack, not to do what they think is expected of them as men. I do think we need to continue to change our socialization away from the violence and physical manifestations of power that we expect of maleness and masculinity. We aren’t there yet. 

There are lots of (mostly white) men who are tantruming these days over the fact that they have to behave like decent citizens if they want to get an education or have a job. They are mad that they can’t act out however they feel like, that they are going to be held accountable (by other men, even!) for their behavior. They are hurt and disappointed they don’t get to wag their penis or their fist with impunity anymore. (At least in some places, at some times. If he wants pure impunity to assault, let him become a catholic priest.)

What needs to change is something deeper than a freshmen orientation that includes bits about not getting so drunk that you can’t consent to sex and learning (again, again, again) that no means no. It’s got to be something deeper, a societal shift that will allow the valuing of well-being of women and children not in some chivalrous fashion but fundamentally, that sees women and children as as human as men are. That sees us all as worthy of existing. That values kindness and respect.

Kindness and respect. Can you imagine? If only that weren’t such a hard sell in America.

Thanks for being here today, for reading. Thank you for the space you create for others to be all of who they are, in their messy and honest humanity. Thank you for all the new lessons you teach by holding open space for yourself, for your own complicated beauty, for your creative resilience, for your words.

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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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#WritingOurselvesWholeBook has arrived!

Cover of Writing Ourselves Whole book, held in a hand over toys and a wooden floor
The picture my sister texted when she received her copy of Writing Ourselves Whole in the mail! It’s how I knew the book was out in the world!

Good morning, good morning!

We’ve reached that beautiful moment in the SF Bay area when the light begins to change, school gets going again, the leaves on our few deciduous trees start to change color and fall — and suddenly summer arrives in the Bay Area. I hope you are enjoying this warm weather — and staying cool and hydrated in the places where it’s been extra hot.

I have an exciting announcement: the book, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Heal and Recover from Sexual Trauma, is now available, both in stores and online, in print and e-book format! I found it on a bookstore shelves yesterday (thanks to our local Barnes and Noble in El Cerrito, the only bookstore left in town!) and finally got to lay my hands on a copy — see below there for the picture of me by the books on the shelf, after I got to autograph them!) 

Jen smiles big next to the Writing Ourselves Whole book on a bookstore's shelves!
Jen smiles big next to the Writing Ourselves Whole book on a bookstore’s shelves!

Thank you so much for all of your support, encouragement, and enthusiasm over these months of the publication process — I honestly can’t wait to hear what you think! (I, myself, am terrified to even open the cover.)

(For those who have gotten the book and have thoughts you’d like to share with others, even a brief review on Amazon or Goodreads goes such a long way. Thank you!)

Coming soon: the #WritingOurselvesWholeBook launch party! I’ll be in touch a little more frequently over the next few months with announcements about readings in the Bay Area and also elsewhere around the country. (If you would like me to come and offer a reading/book signing/workshop in your area, please let me know!)

If you have or are already reading the book, I so hope you enjoy it, are inspired to write, and then share it with friends, pass it around, maybe even start a survivors writing circle of your own. 

Thank you for your words today, and every day. 

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trying to save ourselves. trying to save each other.

Lisboa graffiti: silhouette of birds sitting on a wire beneath a row of windows1. This is the morning. Let’s see if I can remember how to type. It’s been a month since I wrote in this blog – and during this month, my life changed and didn’t change. During this vacation, I taught my body about rest, separation from the daily work, from the sort of scheduled struggle we in the Bay Area have turned our normal into. I visited other places and touched other ways of being and walked on new streets and listened to new voices and touched new possibility.

2. Today is the eclipse that the papers can’t stop talking about. Tomorrow we will see if the world has survived this particular form of darkness, another disappearance in the eyes of the sun. We will stand at attention today and watch as celestial bodies battle it out for our attention, for light. Isn’t that what we do every day, with our attention to celebrity culture? But these are real stars, you say. Yes. Real stars.

3. I want to say something about Charlottesville, but of course, it’s not about Charlottesville. Charlottesville is emblematic of our country’s entire history. White supremacist racists have been killing people, mostly folks who aren’t white, for the entirety of the American “experiment.” Yes, we should rage that a woman was killed, a person was killed, when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of people who were standing up for anti-racist values. who were standing up against white supremacy, standing up for a fundamental change in America. One that says, all people are created equal, and means it, and believes it, and enacts policy and government with the idea that it’s actually true. Racists killing people is nothing new. White supremacists killing people isn’t new, not in our American past, and not in our current day.

We white folks should rage as loudly, in such large numbers, when white supremacy kills folks of color, too, of course.

3. I wanted to tell you about the things I saw and learned during these days away, these weeks away from the everyday, but I have returned to a place that is so vicious and hate-filled and violent and crazy-making that it seems almost an additional violence to discuss peace instead of war. So many of us do not have the luxury of peace right now. We don’t have the luxury of vacation, because of the economy or our national obsession with work or because it is not safe to leave what we know of as home.

4. It is easy to be triggered all the time. It is easy to feel only despair. It is easy to feel lost and frightened and even nihilist — it is easy to want to lose yourself with just about anything— drugs or alcohol, food, television, video games, social media, all of the many ways we addict ourselves out of reality. It is easy to understand why we would want to disappear from this place if we are not part of the majestic elite that is rising like cream in this country.

We are not the only country with a vast canyon yawning between the haves and the rest of us, but this is the one I live in, and it feels like being at the back end of violence when I have it shoved down my throat. Today I will return to downtown San Francisco, push back into the disparity of this my once-beautiful city, in this the place I thought would save me as it had saved so many others, in this place I thought was my mecca. I will see the tech nouveau-riche and the very very poor, the homeless folks who live on the same streets with these tech giants. I will walk again amid the violence of the American experiment, the truth of the American dream.

5. I read a lot of science fiction while I was away, a lot of speculative fiction, a lot of weird fairy tales, taking the old tropes and pulling them inside out until their teeth and veins show. I read books in translation, wanting to touch other ways of imagining the world.

6. Outside I can hear the BART train. I can hear the whoosh of traffic like a constant tide. Two days ago I awoke to cardinals and the sound of the ocean. Why am I back here again, except for a mother who loves her boy and a dog who I missed like skin?

7. I would like the news media to quit publishing photos of the supremacists’ flags and regalia. Seeing those things continues to harm the folks these symbols were brandished against, and gives the images a wider audience, which the supremacists want.

I would also like the media to stop publishing photos of the troll-in-chief, especially on the cover of their papers or magazines – it’s all he wants: publicity. Let’s stop giving it to him.

8. We are trying to save ourselves. We are trying to save each other.

9. I am glad that many, many people are turning against the troll-in-chief and his wayward patch of hopeless advisors. It should not have taken this long, but at least there are people who are beginning to stand up. There should not have been as many people as there were and still are who dismiss him as a newbie who’s still getting his footing. Don’t you recall that the exact same language was thrown against Obama as a hostile criticism: that he was an amateur, that he had no business in the White House?

10. I am afraid for this country. I am afraid for our human species. Tech is not saving us. Tech is driving us apart from one another.

11. This is a scattered post of loss and wanting.

12. What’s new, we say, about Charlottesville, about this moment in racist American history, is that white supremacists feel free to show themselves, to march armed through the middle of a major town in the United States. But it’s not new for white folks to show their faces at a massacre or a murder in the name of white power — it’s actually on been a short time in our American history that the white supremacists felt that they needed to hide.

13. In spite of all the current awfulness in our country, and around the world – or maybe alongside it – I want to feel hopeful. There is so much to terrify us, so much to rage against, so much to be furious about, to grieve, to despair of. But there are glimmers of hope for me as well. Maybe it’s the antidepressants. I can’t say. But if nothing else, if they’re working right, antidepressants can lift us enough out of the muck that we want to keep going, that we believe there’s worth in staying alive another day. For me, it’s remembering that what got me through the worst of the violence of my adolescence and young adulthood was the idea of tomorrow — tomorrow might bring something new. Tomorrow something might change. Tomorrow could bring a new development. Often tomorrow did bring a new development, and it was bad. But the day came when tomorrow brought me courage and strength. The day came when tomorrow brought me a no so loud I couldn’t see my way clear to living the way I’d been living for so many years. The day come when tomorrow was my today and my today had a big yes stamped on it and that was the day that everything changed.

Looking forward to tomorrow has a kind of hope in it, or at least, can elastic into something like hope.

14. Keep standing up. Keep fighting against the brainwashing of white supremacy. Struggle in your heart and in the streets, if that’s right for you. Thank you for your struggle today. Thank you for the ways you hold the truth of others’ stories, the way you allow others to hold yours. Thank you for your creative resistance today. Thank you for your words. 

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book snippet: who asks us?

(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 “who asks to hear your story?”:

“What happened to you? What was your childhood like? Want to tell me what brings you in today? How are you doing? Why don’t you like me to touch you there? Why are you so quiet/loud/scared/angry/sad all the time? How come you have so much sex? Why don’t you like surprises? How come you won’t have sex with me? What happened that night? Why don’t you want to talk about it? Do you want to tell me what happened to you?”

To be asked to “tell your story,” one of your core-being stories, is to be asked for a piece of your heart, a chunk of your Real Self. When someone says to me, I want to hear your story, my belly tightens with hope and anxiety. Sharing my history of sexual abuse and how I’ve lived since is a wildly vulnerable act. What if they can’t take it? I worry. What if they can’t really hear me? And, maybe even scarier to consider: What if they can?

Who asks to hear traumas stories—I mean, really hear them? And how long does it take to believe that someone really wants to hear us?
Cops ask some of us. Parents ask. Sometimes a friend will ask. Sometimes lovers ask. Therapists, of course. That’s not very many people. Most of the people we spend our lives around don’t ask and don’t want to know. They want a pop song, a poster, a bumper sticker. They don’t want the sticky sweet rot of our true details. That messes up the cool ocean breeze and gently swaying grasses of their triumphant sunset cinematic fantasies of Everything Is All Better Now.

This sounds cynical. I understand the triumphant sunset cinematic fantasy, of course I do. I carry it, too. It’s a great place to visit, but a hard place to be expected to live.

•§•

Of course, a powerful draw of therapy is that someone to listen to our whole story with compassion and empathy and non-judgment (at least, ideally). The bounds of the therapeutic relationship mean that our telling is contained and confined, which we often need.
Consider what it takes for us to unravel our full story for those who share the rest of our lives. What a risk, to allow ourselves to be more fully beheld.

We believe no one will love us if they know who we really are, what we carry, what we’ve done, what’s been done to us—and the more we don’t expose ourselves to those we love, the more certain we are of the old story of our unlovablity.

And then what if they can’t hold it? We are afraid that our stories, that we ourselves, are “too much”—and given that our story has probably frightened or overwhelmed friends, that we’ve had family ignore or discount what we told them, this fear doesn’t arise out of nowhere.

The page asks for your story. In writing, we can be free to say just what we want to say, to tell the story however we want to tell it, without editing ourselves based on how our listener reacts. A workshop participant once described to me a difference she appreciated between a traditional support group and the survivors writing group: in the support group, she spent a lot of the session rehearsing what it was she wanted to say, or editing it based on the group’s energy, so she couldn’t focus well on the folks who shared before her. In our writing group, though, we all wrote together, and when it was time to share, because her story was already crafted, she could give more attention to the other stories being shared in the circle—and trusted that she had the full attention of others in the room as well.

Just because someone has asked for our story doesn’t mean we should tell them, doesn’t mean they can hold us, doesn’t mean they’re safe. We listen to our instincts. We know when someone is interested, really interested, in hearing more, when someone has shut down or slipped into overwhelm. We expand or pull back in, accordingly. We don’t want to slip the sticky heartbeat of our stories into hands that cannot hold them, into ears that have turned to stone—or worse, to negative judgment or disbelief. We employ the skill (likely developed during our abuse) to redirect attention away from ourselves. Sometimes we tell those wrong folks anyway, because we are hopeful and lonely, because we want to believe they’re good for us (no matter what our intuition says), and sometimes because we believe or feel like we have no other choice.
I have had ridiculous responses to my stories. Someone once asked, “Did you like what you did with your sister?” Someone else asked, “Do you think about doing it again when you see her now?” Others have believed that now they understood, after having heard some part of my history, why I was queer, or why I was feminist. Some listeners have cut me off with the sincere appellation “brave,” when what I wanted was to be understood as so much more complicated than that.

What I want to tell is the truth, to burst the bubble of that sunset fantasy. What I want is to download it all so that I don’t have to tell it again, even though I will never stop telling it. What I want is to get it right so that you can see the land I live in and what I look like inside, so that I don’t have to be alone there anymore.

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

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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…)