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(I wrote this piece a couple years ago. It is sadly not an isolated example of injustice when it comes to household violence against children and women in particular. I recently edited and read this essay at V-day at Women Writing for (a) Change, in Ohio, so I am publishing the edited version here.)
Dear Judge McKeon,
A 40-year-old Montana father raped his 12-year-old daughter. Repeatedly.
You sentenced him to 60 days, of which he will serve 43. For good measure, he must pay $80 and “future medical care for his daughter.” You mean, I think, for his victim?
Forty-three days in jail for raping his 12-year-old daughter. Repeatedly.
Somewhere under the wide, wild Montana sky a little girl tries to sleep and will never sleep the same again.
There’s a call for your impeachment, but you’ve made your decision. Forty-three days and eighty bucks.
You mention it was a hard decision for you.
Yes, it would be hard for anyone with an ounce of humanity to come up with a sentence like that.
Yet, I’ve seen this happen over and over. Someone weaker smiles, flirts, rejects, or simply exists when a man’s anger boils over. Anger that makes him “powerless” to think. His rage is someone else’s fault. In this case, a twelve-year-old girl’s fault.
Deep down, Judge McKeon, you and a lot of others still believe females are property to use and abuse. I’m sure you’d swear that wasn’t true. But your actions reveal your real feelings.
Under Montana state law, your sentence to the rapist should have been steep:
“A person convicted of the offense of incest … shall be punished by imprisonment for a term of up to 100 years and fined an amount not to exceed $50,000…”
These things — things like incest, things like raping your own daughter — these things happen in the night, usually. Hand over mouth in the dark, whispered threats from a man who is supposed to love you and take care of you.
Somewhere under the wide, wild Montana sky a little girl tries to sleep and will never sleep the same again.
Maybe the little girl never really knew trust, even before. I can’t decide if possessing pure, innocent trust and losing it is better or worse than never having it at all. There seems no one she might trust, and you, too, failed her — utterly, miserably, unforgivably.
I bet you’d point out that her own mother asked for a reduced sentence, citing the rapist’s sons “need to know their father.” That her own grandmother said: “His children, especially his sons, will be devastated if their dad is no longer part of their lives.”
These are words, Judge that should have set off clanging alarm bells in your head.
Somewhere under the wide, wild Montana sky a little girl tries to sleep and will never sleep the same again.
She cannot sleep the way children should be able to sleep. Trauma has rewired her brain now, set her whole being to red-alert. To sleep well again will take years of love and therapy. To trust again may never happen. It’s a hard road to go alone. She is twelve years old. TWELVE.
Somewhere under the wide, wild Montana sky, a little girl is all alone. Her father raped her, repeatedly, and no one testified on her behalf. No one.
Friends of the rapist noted that the accused was employed and had a supportive community and thus was, in their opinions, apparently just the sort of child rapist that could be magically rehabilitated overnight.
I’d like to ask a question of the court. Why is there “leeway” in an incest case?
If he had raped his neighbor’s 12-year-old, would you be so casually lenient, Judge? If he had raped a 12-year-old related to you, would you have said he’d just made a “mistake?” Would you think him being in the lives of his sons was a good idea, a good reason to suspend his sentence? Would you think about what a sentence like this says to the world, or to this man’s sons? It says what he did to their sister was no big deal.
Somewhere under the wide, wild Montana sky a little girl is crying, and thinks no one hears her.
I wonder, Judge McKeon, how many others you have sentenced to life?
For that child faces a life sentence. A million signatures on a petition to impeach you is not enough. But I think impeaching you would be a start. A start towards a world where a little girl has the right to sleep deeply, trusting those around her to love her, and keep her safe in the night.
Follow up: Prosecutors in Montana did not appeal the controversial 43-day jail sentence for a man who admitted to raping his 12-year-old daughter.
And Judge McKeon retired with full benefits.
More info/news stories that informed my piece:
(Following is an excerpt from my novel, The Last Butterfly, that I’m workshopping this week at Colgate University in New York…feeling excited to reconnect with these characters…finally going to finish my edits/plot-hole fixes! It’s told in the voice of Luna, a 15 year old who lives in the deadzone of what was once central Indiana, in the year 2196.)
May 16, 2196
I thought he was a bad man, come to kill me in my sleep. Or rape me. I opened my mouth to scream, and a hard hand clamped my mouth shut. It was a man, a tall man looming over me in the darkness.
Then I saw it was Reece, whispering to be quiet. He’d climbed in my window, silently, like a cat.
I was dreaming. I thought I was dreaming.
Until he said my name, said to come with him, hurry.
“There’s not much time, Luna, hurry. Shh. Don’t wake Augusta.”
“Where’s your Papa?” he hissed, then shook his head when I began to answer. “Never mind. See if your Mama is sleeping,” he whispered. “Don’t wake her.”
I peeked through the doorway in the adjoining room. Mama slept with Stella curled on one side and Thor on the other.
We crept silently past Mama, through the dome, and out into the yard. A thousand stars lit the clear night. I looked up at Reece. He looked stronger, taller, thinner. His hair was loose, and past his shoulders now.
I threw my arms around him, felt myself dissolving in tears of joy at seeing him again. He wrapped his arms around me, hugged me tight to his hard bony chest. He smelled of sweat and dirt and fire. “I don’t have much time,” he said. He took hold of my upper arms and pushed me gently away.
“Luna, I have to go, I can’t stay. I came to warn you. I was going to tell Daniel, or Chan—where is everyone?” I started to tell him everything, how Bart and Crimson and David left, about the bone, about Chan and Nikki and Lev and Antonia leaving the colony.
He cut me off. “Where’s your Papa?”
“How did you know he’s gone?”
“It doesn’t matter—I looked through the windows, all of them. Is my father the only man here?”
“He’s supposed to be on watch,” I said.
“Well, he’s watching with his eyes closed,” Reece said, he smiled a little, a flash of his old joking self.
“Don’t you want to see him? And Grammie? Why are we whispering?”
His dark eyes met mine. “There’s no time, I have to go or I’ll be missed. “ He looked old, suddenly, and hard. Dangerous. “I don’t want anyone tracking me here. Soldiers have no hearts, Luna, even in the Freedom League. They’d kill your chickens and take the goats, take all your food, and probably do – horrible things…” He took a deep breath, and then kissed the top of my head. “People do horrible things, Luna,” he whispered.
He thrust me away again. His voice was edged with panic. “Just listen, okay? No more talking. You have to tell everyone what I’m telling you, and you have to get it right.”
And then he told me how South Bend was in Junt’s control, how the Junt army had slaughtered everyone, and taken control of the IonoWave.
“But– Chan! Nikki! Lev—they’re going there! To work, to earn freehold –“
“There’s no time, Luna. I have to go! You need to leave here, right away. Leave and head south. Indianapolis is still safe, and fortified. There are Junt guerillas heading south. They’ll do more than kill your chickens, do you understand?” He shook my shoulders. “If they find you, they’ll kill you all. You can’t be here! Do you understand?”
“I have to go. I have to get back before I’m missed.”
“But…” I began, dazed. “Don’t, please, don’t go!”
“Take this.” He pulled a big, sheathed knife from his pocket. “Tie this onto you. If someone tries to take you, stab him in the eye, or in the balls. Then run, hear me? Run!”
“Reece, you’re scaring me. Stay with us! Come with us!”
He shook his head. His long dark hair shone in the starlight. “You don’t understand. I’ve pledged my service. We have to try to stop them, Luna. I have to go. Please. Wake everyone when I’ve gone. And then go! Go south.” His words spilled out in a rush. “Don’t let my father come after me. Tell him I love him. Tell Grammie…” his deep voice caught. He pulled me into his arms for just a moment. One of those long moments, where time stretches out. I felt his heart beating hard in his chest.
“I love you, Luna,” he whispered. I looked up at him, wordless. He kissed me hard, on the mouth. I tasted salt. I gripped onto his arm. He wrenched himself away, pulling free from my grasp. I dropped the knife.
He bent and picked it up. His face was wet with tears. “Don’t let this go,” he said, handing the knife to me again. “Wait five minutes. Then wake everyone, and go!”
“But Papa’s in Greenfield,” I said.
“If he’s not back when you’ve packed, go without him,” Reece said. “Just go.”
He left me then, alone under the black sweep of the sky, the amaranth dancing in the soft breeze, the goats and chickens stirring softly, the crickets chirping.
If I hadn’t had the knife to prove he’d come, no one would have believed it.
Last night I woke in the teeth of the storm, shaking in a strange bed in a strange place. This time, it wasn’t a dream.
I woke to thunder so loud I could feel it course through me, over and over, the way a bass beat at a rock concert vibrates in your spine. Thunder so intense it rattled the old wooden double-hung window of the century-old shotgun house on Maurepas where I slept on Mother’s day eve, my youngest nearby, both of us startling awake and sliding into dreams again and again, as the storm rolled overhead.
The drifting and waking reminded me of the way I slept between contractions during labor, slept and woke, slept and woke, a nether world of sleep and memory.
Sliding between storm and sleep, the picnic of the evening before replayed. On blankets spread on the banks of Bayou St. John we shared crusty bread, sharp cheese, black bean hummus, sweet strawberries and veggie stir-fry with gingery tofu. Wine and laughter. My dear ones and their dear ones, all of us sprawling together as the cloudy daylight slid into darkness, the bayou reflecting the lights of the big houses on the far shore.
There were seven of us, six twenty-somethings and one fifty-something: me, mother to two of the group, mother-aged for all. I felt a bit like Mnemosyne, mother of the muses, listening to the younger ones discussing their dreams and how they are bringing them to life. I marveled at their gifts, admiring their drive and determination without any maternal pride, because it’s become clear to me that I have very little to do with how even my own adult children turned out, apart from nurturing them and then getting out of the way as much as I could while they explored their gifts.
Mnemosyne—mother of the muses and keeper of memory.
Sitting in a circle with these beautiful young ones, I imagined how Mnemosyne’s heart must have swelled with joy, seeing the brilliance of the offspring she helped bring into being, one for every wild night she spent with Zeus, collisions of passions like storms in the night, wild creation birthing wildly creative beings.
Back to the storm of last night. This was not a normal Midwestern sort of storm, where the gods battle high in the heavens. This storm blew in at sea level, and I was inside this storm as if at sea, the little shotgun house a boat in the waves, the rain sounding like cresting waves crashing on the tin roof, hail pounding, windows rattling.
And in the morning, writing this—all magically calm again. Birds singing (where do they go, I wonder, in that kind of storm?)
On the shotgun porch as I write, it hits me how scared I’ve felt lately about the state of the world, about the global storms blowing the world off-course. This Mother’s day morning, I am hopeful again. The muses are at work, with their creative vision, their bravery and resilience.
It makes me want to forget the idea I sometimes have of being too old to join in. Because we can’t shirk it all off on the younger generation. That was what happened to my own generation, after all. All hope was thrust onto us to save the environment. Hippies turned to stock brokers as the impossibility of one generation creating change alone drained all energy. And here we are, sliding backwards. But from the bottom, maybe we can surface to a new world? If we all wake and work?
Even the old birds are singing hopeful songs this morning.
Even the worst storms eventually clear to a morning like this one, with sunshine and possibility.
Note: there is a wonderful section of New Orleans where all the streets are named for the muses. Read about it here: http://kreweofmuses.org/the-muses/mythology/
Fastwrite prompt from a recent writing workshop:
Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Feel your shoulders relax.
Remember a time you were held, and rocked. Or a time you held someone, and rocked them. Any time you felt safe, held.
Begin there. Write for 7 minutes, focusing on the sensations, the moment.
Here’s what came up for me:
Sea-salt air hammock snugged around my sturdy body
little me in my chlorine-bleached Speedo
rope-web diamonding my solid thighs
Kennebunk sun, north sun
light as a cotton sweater on a cool morning
swaying, swaying, swaying, swaying away
Gulls overhead blue sky then pines then smoke bushes
green gaze rolling like a marble in the swing, swing
springs of the hammock singing along with my
Nonsense syllables wiggling toes and goosebumps
Queen Anne’s lacy head tickling my back
shivering me in the carrot-scented breeze
Summer waning, sliding swaying
far off a tractor growls in the Ricker’s potato fields…
at the fringe edge of the forest, a deer watches, dark eyed.
Maybe having it together has nothing to do with those benchmarks of graduation, certification, publication, validation?
Maybe having it together isn’t about someone else’s notion of
achievement. Or being better than anyone else.
Or that winning makes someone else a loser.
Or that trying and failing is somehow shameful.
That you have to be balanced all the time.
New belief: “I am on a journey, doing my best. Imperfect.”
That means when the anxious zinging starts, the uneasiness arises—I can just FEEL it and stop trying to bargain it away, hoping when I do THIS or THAT—whatever new thing I find lacking, like say, being organized—that when I achieve that thing, I will be “together” at last.
Imperfect. Not great, never was. See what is, and build from there. Stop pretending. Let what is reveal itself.
Perfection is deception. Perfection is a poison pill packaged and sold next to the botox and collagen injections. Perfection is the woman on a pedestal who cannot squish mud between her polished toenails. Some warped white-washed selfish notion of perfection, I think, lies behind the toxic, racist Make America Great Again slogan—the notion that rewriting the past will coat every ugly truth in the golden light of remembered sunsets past, and save us from ourselves. No. Recovery from perfections micro and macro requires seeing what is, ugly, messy, real.
I will treat you gently, Perfection. You are bone-china blue-white transparent, so damned fragile. I pack you up in a pine box, swaddle you in virgin cotton balls grown and picked by browner hands in hot sun, oh porcelain beauty, flowers fine painted with single-hair brushes by small hands in some far-off land, petaled curves over and over perfect, while outside the sun and rain and wind are lost, years are lost, squinting childhood away, lost.
Perfection, you voracious beautiful wicked thing. I hold you, marveling at how I carried you proudly all those years, thinking it was an honor, my duty, my job?
I’d smash you, and maybe I should? But I fear I’d want to reassemble you somehow, find a way to make you whole again—and so I would waste more time.
Because you are just what you are, shiny prize, symbol of false wholeness.
I will nestle you in this little wooden box, so like a coffin.
I will bury you outside in the moonlight before the hard frost comes, bury you under the cherry tree with all the other beliefs I have, at last, I hope, outgrown.
It′s started off rocky, and my heart is feeling heavy for reasons both external and internal. Familiar questions echo: bouncing from the global to the personal.
Why are our societal systems often so cruel to the most vulnerable, the most innocent?Why do we so often hurt the ones we love?
And me: Why can′t I always be direct, and open?
Why does the past creep up and put its grubby little fingers over my eyes, my mouth, my ears? Why do I often run when I need to face things?
So much is born in seeds of fear. This year I will do what I did last year. My best.
Sometimes good, sometimes, well, not so good.
Focusing on learning, and growing, and cultivating more love, more understanding.
More forgiveness when we fail, as we will. More celebration when we succeed in loving kindness, joy, compassion…let’s do this.
Let′s grow a better world, together.
Dear 19-year-old Me,
You were SO excited, do you remember? I mean, you were on the move and it wasn’t New York, or even Chicago—but it was somewhere—another state, albeit in the absolute wrong direction, away from the coast, even further from the Atlantic you dreamed of living near one fine day.
I’m writing to remind you of the sheer newness, the joy of that. Do you remember? Learning a new city, by getting lost in its flat expanses, gridded broad streets radiating out from a center point, the grand procession of green-lawned parks marching up Meridian Avenue, dotted with statues, obelisks, monuments of wars long past…one-way streets and diagonals and even a traffic circle!
Remember cruising the city in Georgia McGuire’s shiny red Mercedes Benz—parking with flashers on in truck zones or in alleys to run contact sheets into Ad agencies and design studios? You pretended the car was yours, and Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” played in the sound track in your bubbly young mind.
Back then, it seemed money and a fancy foreign car might add up to happiness, or something like it.
At the end of the work day it was back to your old wood-grained Chrysler wagon, drinking 3-for-$1 beers with Jane and her friend—was it Amy? Angie?—who were in their late twenties, and regulars, so no one carded you even though you looked about fourteen, so fresh-faced, even with makeup on.
There was an air of possibility surrounding you like a bubble that humid Indianapolis summer. Even though nothing really happened—well, there was that brief crush on Georgia’s handsome young son (whose name has vanished now into the summer haze). He was tall and dark-haired and had a sweet slow Alabama drawl and the careless manners of someone born with money. The tobacco-chewing habit—the way he spit the chaw into a coke bottle like that was normal—was a crush-breaker. But still. For a few heart-thumping flirtatious days, you’d dipped into fantasy the way he dipped into Skoal. Imagined being part of the family, rich, unconcerned about the price of a Mercedes or a mansion. Because back then, happiness seemed like something you could maybe buy, if you were lucky. Something you could purchase and keep, like a trinket from some far-off hotel gift shop. Something just out of reach for a girl like you.
If I could really send you a postcard now, I’d tell you to sit and feel the pain of what you were running from, because happiness was folded underneath all along. You just needed to take your foot off that accelerator. Slow down. Unpack.
Love from your future self,
Note: this was written from a prompt where each person chose (at random) a postcard, and wrote a “postcard” to an earlier version of themselves; we wrote for 10 minutes, and the above is a quick polishing of the fastwrite back to the past.
We choose how we see things.
An intention towards love rather than reactions from fear can change everything.
Today in workshop: coloring back in time
In today’s Amherst Artists & Writers workshop, we finished with a prompt rooted in mindfulness and childhood memory. Here’s how it goes: you choose a few crayons from a big bowl, make sure everyone has drawing paper, and together we all breathe in the smell of the crayolas.
Now imagine you are sinking back in time, drawing with crayons, when someone’s told you to go color. You have nothing else to do, and busily you begin to draw what you would have drawn then. We have twelve minutes. Draw until you feel moved to begin writing, just noticing the feel of the crayon as you make lines and scribble—as long as you want to, you can skip writing entirely—and then write until the time is up.
…What came up for my workshoppers was wonderfully diverse in tone, ranging from wry to meditative to inspiring. I’m always blown away by how writers can take risks and write from the heart when we relax and get in front of that internal critic. Try it yourself sometime! Playing is fun, and brings out creative ideas.
Here’s what came up for me:
My mother never called anyone an asshole
Orange, I thought it was orange but the name on the label said “scarlet.”
I remember the fatter crayons they gave us in kindergarten, fat like our fingers were. I remember the way the color flowed out onto paper and everyone noticed I could draw what I saw, a gift, they said, pointing. But I just wanted to be small and unseen.
Seen, I blushed like the red crayon and inside turned cyan and chilly like the car on winter mornings on the way to school.
Seen, they said, “Oh, look how cute, she’s so shy!” And how my mother never told them to “stop talking about her as if she’s not here. She’s listening, assholes.”
(My mother never called anyone an asshole, but if she were alive now, I think she would.)
Mama got feistier and feistier as she grew older. But back when I was in Kindergarten, she was shrinking pale blue and gray and lots of black skies. There were no petal or dandelion-colored flowers blooming in her smiles. I drew her tulips and daisies and roses. I used all the crayons in the big box, sharpening them with the little sharpener to make the flowers as real as I could make them, but they were never real enough for her to feel them in her heart, it seemed.
She was blue and alone but much later, when I was all grown up and she was dying, she was brave and alone, instead. She would have called an asshole an asshole, I’m sure of it—if only she’d lived a little longer.
She was blooming like a warm summer day, right as she died back.
(I just wish she could come back.)
Waiting for the sunshine
You stood in the kitchen, waiting for the sunshine.
Oh, Mama. You waited.
You waited while the tickle in your throat rattled and rattled. Every phone call, eruptions of coughing. I listened, there was nothing else I could do—and sometimes I’d cut in, “hey, I’ll call you back, how about, when you’re feeling better.”
Now I see it through a backwards lens, time is funny like that, now I’m about how old YOU were then and my daughters are the ages I was then; I was your little last bird flown. Now I know the feeling of that emptiness, that new empty-nest, and how precious those calls become. Now I can feel, all these years later, how alone you must have sometimes felt, in your small kitchen, especially that last winter, coughing, insisting, talking, waiting, insisting that you were just fine.
You couldn’t really talk, but you didn’t want to hang up. It was a tickle, the end of a long lingering cold, a cold-on-top-of-a-cold, it was nothing.
Now I see you, frozen in the amber of that long-ago cold alone kitchen. Me not so far away in miles, but twenty-something me. So busy, busy, busy. A budding Bokonist, junior capitalist, believing that being an adult meant staying on the spinning hamster wheel. And also believing that you were going to be around for years and years, Mama. You were my mother. Life without you wasn’t comprehensible, and I didn’t imagine it, wouldn’t even try.
So I believed you, about the cough being nothing.
And still you coughed. I began to notice the unendingness of it. Worry crept in. I insisted you go to the doctor, but not soon enough. You locked my worries out and I let you. I locked them up, I guess. They were scary. Where did I learn to lock up so well? From you, Mama, you who waited in your small kitchen, vinyl-tiled, traces of avocado green barely visible in the corner, a little spot you missed when you carefully painted over with eggshell cream.
The wall phone is still avocado green in the mists of my memory. The round orb of the pendulum lamp casts a golden glow over the Formica table of the past, littered with bridge hands and newspapers and you, sitting there, smiling. So warm. I wish I could climb back into that kitchen, climb back to you.
I went to a movie with a friend the other day, an art film. Over ice cream afterwards he asked me, wonderingly, did I think the movie meant that all a man really wanted was a mother? I looked into his slate-gray eyes, and I thought of you, Mama.
No, I thought. It’s not just men who want that.
I thought of that horrible Psychology textbook photo, of the poor little monkey in the experiment who could choose, while starving, between a wire-framed “mother” equipped with milk and a nipple, or a fur-covered “mother” to cling to.
The little monkey always chose gnawing hunger and the fuzzy mama.
My friend’s sad eyes after the movie made me slide backwards through all the years. His eyes made me want to find you again, find you and fold you in my arms, to mother you, Mama. Because that is what you must’ve most wanted.
Because sometimes, life is scary, and you just want your mother.
But life is a funny circle, too. Scary and funny. In seeing how I failed you, I found you once again.
You’re here, waiting in the sunshine. Sometimes the darkness covers your shine, like a cloud. But you’re always there.
(Fastwrite from a prompt on regret).