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This is a picture of
fragile beautiful thing—
like your heart and every heart.
Tender red beating
strong enough to push gallon
after gallon of blood
around and around
two thousand gallons
day after day.
Or it might just be a tulip.
In this one, you are standing by the old canal at Holcolm Gardens. The sun has made your hair catch fire, the sun is coating your tanned legs and long arms with a honeyed light, and for some silly reason lost to me now, you are holding up a big red box of Cheetos, holding it proudly, as if you are Carol Merrill and the box of snacks is a glistening prize that a nervous contestant is pondering.
In this one, you’ve driven back east to visit me, with a loaded Magnum 357 tucked under the front seat for company. It was the last time I would ever see you, but I didn’t know that then.
I guess you never really do know?
In this one, you are as I imagine you still are — slender and strong, tough and flexible as a zip tie. I was sure, in the way only a young person can hope to be, that somehow we’d stay best friends forever. That some how the trauma-bond of our shared childhoods and barbed wire moments of our teen years would bridge the miles, bridge the chasm growing between us, already as deep as a Colorado ravine.
In this one, I was laughing and my boyfriend was squirting lighter fluid on the grill and you were smiling, that sharp sickle-shaped smile of yours. Behind your mirrored aviators, your sky-blue eyes must have been smiling too.
In this one, I already missed you, even though your were still right there, holding the Cheetos.
(This was a fastwrite from a prompt: imagine a photograph that you have in an album or on your phone; get a picture of it in your mind, and begin with “In this one, you’re…” Write for 10 minutes.)
I was very excited when I saw the latest edition of Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment–which includes a story of mine which won an honorable mention in their annual “Sweet Corn Prize in Fiction.” I’m happy this short but mighty story found such a beautiful home. Lots of other great work at Flyway, check it out.
I came across this pencil drawing titled “the news scares me” that I did several years ago. (Seems it’s not a new trend, the news, being scary…) This is a reminder to anyone who’s feeling overwhelmed by the state of things not to despair, but to keep doing whatever you can do to make the world a better place, in whatever ways are within your means. Small actions, large actions—just take action. Do what you can do. Meet the world with love. And laughter. And anger. And hope.
We are not so different, you and I, aside from the blood pumping in my veins and our obvious size difference, me so large and pillowy soft compared to your flat hard rectangular slipperiness. Oh, you go everywhere with me, like a shadow or a best friend (but maybe you are more shadow than friend?)
At night, like me, you inexplicably wake, beaming. Sometimes I wake at the same time as you. (We are, I think, linked?) And I see you, wide-eyed, staring at me. I have turned off every notification setting I can find; I have activated the “do not disturb” feature on your very latest OS—yet still, you wake over and over.
You are the sieve, the news-breaker, the heart-breaker of my life, aren’t you? Through your tiny speakers I have seen news that gutted me and heard hard words from people I love. I’ve heard honesty and seen realities that should have shattered your dark face.
But you are a phone. Why do you wake, little one? I wish you could sleep.
Maybe old hard syllables echo in you, something like abandonment dreams or trapped memories?
Triggers of something hard-wired into you by a tired woman half a world away who assembled you in a factory far from her family, thinking maybe of a mother or father or child she would likely never see again, swept by economic suck from home forever?
Is it her that wakes you?
You light up the dim bedroom, again, again. Is it the news? The latest assault or attack that flows through you to me? Do you try, and sometimes fail, like I do, to let it go? Is that it?
The news that rings with nightmare laughter of pussy grabbers, of men (and women, too) with hearts harder than your protective casing. Oh, little one, I understand that. I wake afraid, too.
Rape is a weapon, sexual abuse is a weapon—I’m getting off track, but rape is a weapon, and rape culture is to rape as open-carry is to gun violence. The news! Over and over, the wife or girlfriend shot before the rampage. They are trying to keep us afraid, aren’t they? But they don’t know. I’ve begun these sleepless nights to figure it out.
Maybe this is why you’ve taken to waking me. To make me see that to be afraid is to be human. We humans, all of us—are vulnerable to hurt, to pain. So maybe the trick is to be afraid, and do what you want anyway. Do not comply out of fear.
Complying from fear: that would be like losing yourself.
Like losing your heart and soul.
Speaking of loss, my soft body with its hard bones will not last, my little rectangular friend. In the end, we are both disposable. It’s okay. My soul will, I think, continue on. In some form or another.
Maybe I’ll become some whispered words between lost lovers who find each other on a starry night. Words that unlock something healing. Maybe I’ll be whispered words in a phone like you, words that might push someone else to move, despite their fear, into the stream of life.
Maybe I’ll be reborn a rectangle, hard and sleek, living warm in a pocket.
If I do, I imagine I’ll often wake with a jolt like you do, full of dread and information.
And then, like you, I’ll do my very best to close back down and sleep until it is time to chime awake the lovers tangled together in the bed next to me, to gently tell them morning has come, and the world somehow continues still to turn.
[ Note: much as I love and personify my iphone, we are no longer sleeping in the same room 🙂 ]
I’ve been a bit sick the last few days. Actually, I’ve felt really, really crappy, and unable to work until today. I felt both emotionally and physically ill. The anniversary of the election of the pussy-grabber, the unfolding exposure of so many #metoo stories, and the fact that there are still so many supporters & deniers of the pervasive poison of misogyny and abuse all collided with a nasty virus and exploded in bad dreams where I woke feeling in danger, panicked (and also, sick!).
The bad dreams are an old pattern, one I am learning to heal with writing and movement, study and support. I really thought I was past all that. But when it came roaring back I felt like I was a failure, like my efforts were futile in this world. I felt defeated there for a little bit. Old pattern, that.
But not all old patterns are damaging. I find drawing what is in front of me so very soothing. I draw, and then color or paint it in. This never fails to make me feel joyful in the moment. I drew obsessively during my whole childhood, then put it away, for the most part. Until recently. Now when I feel unable to drop down past fear, and relax into what I feel—I draw. Being sick, my usual go-to plan of walking and yoga and meditation just seemed too hard.
And drawing? It seemed too fun. (When untangling old patterns, maybe look for the fun, too? I feel better already.)
PS The poem in the picture is a line of a fragment, by the poet Praxilla of Sícyon, 450 BC. She composed many, many poems and was known for her scolia (short lyric poems for after-dinner entertainment). One of the lyric muses, only eight of her fragments survive.
Here is the fragment in its entirety:
Fragment 1 | Praxilla of Sícyon, 450 BC
Loveliest of what I leave behind is the sunlight,
and loveliest after that the shining stars, and the moon’s face,
but also the cucumbers that are ripe, and pears, and apples.
This fragment makes a wonderful writing prompt. Think about what is the loveliest in your life, in this moment. What would you miss, if you had to leave this moment?
The other thing I loved as a child was writing poetry and stories. Old patterns, re-emerging, to help me make new ones.
Today is my birthday. So much has happened since I exited my mother’s womb those many years ago. The story of my birth and my mother’s labor are lost forever. All I have are a few hazy details.
“Oh I had twilight sleep,” my mother told me. “No memory of any of it,” she said, shaking her head each time she mentioned it, as if trying, again, to summon the experience that her body had, to shake it out somehow. “They told me I said really awful things,” she confided once. “The drugs make you crazy.” She also said it was good thing, of course. She’d felt the pain of childbirth before; I’m not sure how many of her births were “twilight” but I’m pretty sure at least one of her preceding birth experiences had happened too fast for many interventions. Maybe she really chose twilight sleep, willingly. I don’t know, and I cannot ask her. Why give birth with pain? Twilight sleep was the modern way. Like formula was modern, better than anything a woman’s breast might produce. I can see how she would choose that, or maybe feel there were no other options.
I read up on twilight sleep. From the distance of the years (it was abandoned in the late 60s/early 70s) it sounds like the stuff of nightmares, like some kind of awful date-rape drug, a mixture of Morphine and Scopolamine. It erased any memory of labor and birth, but did not eliminate pain. Often women became panicked, or even psychotic, and attempted self-harm. They were routinely restrained to their beds with lambskin-lined straps, to prevent bruising as they thrashed, a common thing when the dose was wrong.
But the body remembers even when the mind forgets, and a shadow always crossed my mama’s face when she talked about my birth, about the twilight sleep.
“It was the strangest thing,” she said. She seemed to disappear as she said it. Her face misted over, like a mirror fogged.
“In twilight sleep, sensation is still present though in diminished degree; the patient feels the pains of uterine contractions, frequently she moans, draws up her legs, and in other ways shows that she is suffering, but these painful sensations are not recorded in the memory cells… if asked a question, she will answer often in a dazed and confused fashion.”1
Today, on the anniversary of my birth, I’m thinking about pain, about the necessity of feeling what you feel—emotionally and physically—in order to move toward wholeness and health. Of course, seeking pain relief is not a bad thing. But there’s the issue of agency. Who is deciding that this is the best thing? (The same people who decided midwives and unmedicated births were a menace, that’s who.) Even if it was what Mama chose, I struggle with the issue of awareness, and the idea of not having a loving advocate while in a state where you will not remember what is done to you. (Remember, husbands paced in the waiting room back then, banished). I imagine having twilight sleep presented as the only ‘sane’ option available. Of being railroaded and gas-lighted.
While my own birth-giving experiences were not without interventions, I remember them all and I consented to each one. I felt tremendous pain, which I lived through and processed. No shadows cross my face when I remember the births of my children. I’d do things differently now, given the chance, but I made my own decisions, and had my then-husband with me the whole time.
Reading about trauma taught me that what is not processed, felt and released properly becomes trapped. I think of the trauma of being split from your body as you give birth. Far from being forgotten, unprocessed trauma lies in wait. Perhaps it was the cause of my mother’s battles with depression. Perhaps it was the cause of mine, too?
Suppression of feelings is what leads to deep despair. But I’m not depressed anymore.
Now I hunger to feel what I feel, in real time. Still, I find myself retreating into old patterns of escape. Patterns so fine I cannot even see them. Perhaps they were died into the wool of me, during my twilight birth? Knitted in during childhood experiences that divided my mind from my body? Unraveling takes time.
Last summer, I worked with a life-coach in her final months of training, as her test-client. The coach asked me lots of hard questions. Questions like: “and how do you feel, right now?”
I often answered in meandering, rambling ways, embroidering. She’d cut me off. “Where are you? I’ve lost you,” she’d say. “Just tell me how you feel, and where you feel it.”
Often, I didn’t know. This stunned me. Really? I didn’t know? How could I not know?
“Say you don’t know,” she coached. “Say you feel confused.”
Slowly I wake. Reams of paper, hours of walking and thousands of sun salutations later, that “where do you feel it?” question still often makes a shadow pass over my face, still frequently dazes and confuses me, still makes me shake my head as if that will help the right answer emerge from the fog of disconnection.
With another birthday comes new threads of silver hair and some bit of wisdom. I see one thing, anyway: the heart of anxiety, or my anxiety, anyway, is avoidance of feeling what I am feeling.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is not feeling safe in your own body.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is being told how to feel, to having your lived experiences denied.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is feeling your body is not yours to control. To have men in power who want to take away your birth control, free your rapist/harasser (if you dare to speak up at all). On a day when we have an overt misogynist in the White House and many, many other such men leadership positions, when social media is filled with #metoo hashtags denoting individuals who have been sexually assaulted or harassed, I think of the assault of not remembering the day you gave birth. Of the men that decided that was a good idea, and the women who really didn’t get a lot of choice about their birth experiences, as men made those decisions for them.
“Even if I had been asked what I wanted during childbirth,” one woman who was given twilight sleep shared, “I wouldn’t have known what to say.”2
I think of the islands of memory that were considered a ‘side effect’ of twilight sleep. Of the women I read about, laboring alone for hours in a drugged haze, feeling the pain with their bodies, who afterwards could only recall being shouted at to be quiet. Of women with eyes bandaged shut, ears stopped up, so as not to have ‘sensory memories’ to latch onto. Of the fear their bodies surely remembered, while their mental memories were magic-erased by scopolamine, a drug made from deadly nightshade. I think of the breach of trust inherent in this treatment. Birth? Oh, who’d want to remember THAT? I read about a woman, surely not the only one—who didn’t believe the baby given to her was her own, and subsequently had no attachment to her baby. I read of children born as perhaps I was, struggling to breathe (a side effect of twilight sleep), whisked away from their mothers for hours because the mothers were under the influence of dangerous drugs that made their behavior unstable, and robbed them of memories of their own experiences. Of the fathers who were also robbed of the experience of being there during birth. Of the way misogyny wounds women, and also men.
I think of my mother’s obstetrician, the same one who told her twilight sleep was the way to go, the man who weighed her at each visit, insisting she keep her weight gain under 25 pounds, and berated her when she gained too much. Because he was watching out for her, so she could “regain her figure.”
That’s a whole other layer of #metoo.
How am I feeling? Grateful for my mother’s incredible strength. Wistful that I can’t ask her more questions about how she felt. Angry at the continued denial of cultural misogyny by so many. Happy for another year of feeling what I feel, and saying what’s on my mind, what’s in my heart—or doing my best to learn how, anyway.
Better late than never.
Vaguely heartshaped, that’s how you described her face, and I always imagined her—with my child’s-eye, literal imagining—as having a face the color of a pink valentine’s candy heart, a face with a pointy chin and also big eyes made of chocolate, because you said hers were brown and melty.
That’s how I saw her, my grandmother I never knew.
The photos were all lost in the legendary house fire, so I never got to see her, how she really looked. I used to long to be able to visit her, like my friend Annie did her Nana. I thought that the first thing I’d do was crawl in her lap and tell her how much you missed her and how much you talked about her. It seemed that would please her, and the way your face looked when your talked about how her singing made the moon rise, how she played a mean game of cribbage and could bait a hook with one hand made me want to know her, and please her.
Later, when I was near-grown, everyone began to remark how like her I was. I used to pull my dark curls away from my face and look for signs of the tell-tale sweetness emerging, but to me, the eyes reflecting back in the mirror were cold as the glass itself, cold as any Canadian January. My face itself was more of a pillow shape. I began to wonder what sort of sieve memories run through, to sugar them so.
Much later still, describing you to my own children, I honeyed your brown hair, I made your eyes the color of the ice on a bright day in March, that fresh slate color, and I made your hugs as warm as raisin-oatmeal cookies fresh from the oven. I waited for them to pepper me with the questions I once would have asked.
My children were raised on your photographs, though. Raised, too, on reality TV and iPods and textbooks, not fed random poetry and left to wander woods and libraries alone, the way I was.
I thought I was doing the right thing, educating them, drilling them with the math facts that I myself could never pin down, the after-school tutoring, summer enrichment programs, sending them to the Catholic school for good discipline and rigor.
But I think I made them blind.
This short piece was written from a prompt in workshop, using the Amherst Writer’s and Artists method.
I, too, am from a sift of lost faces
from patterns I can’t untangle
from an endless string of cats purring
from tall pines and the hum of box fans in the window
from Carolina humidity and red dirt
and Spanish moss dripping everywhere
like paint from my sloppy brush, messy
And now, I am from here.
(snippet from a writing prompt using the classic George Ella Lyon poem, Where I’m from, a poem that has inspired many, many poems, and is one of my favorites.)
back through time
I lumber back through time unrooted
over boulders gap-eyed water glinting pink sunset
unrooted I slide through mud
into sand into lake
stone wash hillsides caving in
I am caving in
all I have to hold onto
all I can carry
this basket, sweet-grass woven
Inside is my pacifer
rubbery round I sucked hard to make the world
go away, and a half-empty pack of Marlboro Lights
that got me through the night
and my mother’s dark gaze, and the way I waited and waited
but she died when I left
In the sweet, sweet basket, a satin ribbon, blue of my father’s
wave and smile from the hospital bed in Kettering
I want, I think, to keep that?
I want to keep the window seat and the slanting roof top
on Cornell Place, keep it in the basket so I can climb back
lie, watch the sky with handfuls of clouds sliding by
I want to keep the way you said “why do you think you’re crazy?”
I want to keep the puzzlement of that
sweet belief sparkling
floating like golden moats in the sunset
I want belief, a thin film of it like magic dust
I want to carry my children’s laughter, and every single hug
and the brick of anger I lobbed through the glass window of us
I want to keep that, too, to remind me
broken is something to keep, too
But mostly I want to keep those giggles that skipped like stones
across the mirror lake
that shone like a string of lights in a summer garden
I want to keep every purring swirl I ever held
and even the ghost who stood there
watching me heartbeating fast, pretending sleep
It’s my basket. I can keep what I want.
The above was written in a twelve-minute fastwrite from a prompt developed by one of my classmates at Amherst Writers & Artist’s Workshop Leader training in Chicago this September. Along with my fellow students, I delved into the AWA method, which you can read more about here. I was drawn to the method, based on the work of Pat Schneider, because of her bedrock belief that every single one of us is born with creative genius, that EVERYONE is a writer/storyteller (regardless of educational level, age, or socio-economic status). Writing that moves us, inspires us, makes us feel, makes us laugh, makes us cry—such writing is the result of connecting to our deepest voices. Our true selves.
I already knew this to be true—that everyone has within them a unique and creative voice. I learned it from the skilled leaders and community at Cincinnati’s Women Writing for (a) Change, where I found my voice (which I had all but lost) in core classes, workshops, and retreats.
This summer it became clear to me that what I most wanted is to learn ways to unlock that magic for others. All kinds of others. People who aspire to write books, people who have written many books, people who want to write poems, people who don’t think anyone wants to hear their stories, people who think no one is listening, or that no one cares. The act of expression—genuine, authentic expression—is an act of liberation. For me, it is transcendent.
Writing is when I connect to my soul-self.
At AWA training, my classmates and I learned about taking creative risks, about creating an environment that welcomes the seeds of new ideas and allows craft to bloom. It was a transformational week.
I’m happy to say I’m a certified AWA Workshop Leader now!
Tonight I led my first small-but-mighty AWA-method workshop at Clifton Cultural Arts Center.
I think I will put tonight in my basket, and keep that, too.