News, Updates, Musings
Chris Pettit CC
There comes a time when more body than thought is required to think of our lives. The thought begins and almost immediately the body intervenes, blushes, aches, flutters, quickens. How can one even continue the thought?
Body registering a memory, an emotional coma-curve, the great rounding bend of body unwording thought. I thought I knew where I was a moment ago, now so far from myself, a sister shadow on foot, the door, elsewhere ajar, a body as invisible as wind expect for what it touches of thought. Who do I think I am?
I almost knew once. Thank God that didn't work out. Now the question seems important again. Alive. I tease myself open, I think, too much, now the body shivers, I take notice. I take note. Why can't I stay with the thought? Your mind is your mother. And your body?
Unyielding, a muscular convulsion, microscopic earthquake, in, out. Body demanding thought stutter when the word is on the threshold.
In sleep the body surrenders herself at last. Thought quirks in darkness. Thickens. The world unworldly. Minor figures loom large and speak tall. The dead do rise, we are touched, in the center of our hearts. And we are ripped away from them. Returned to body in mourning/morning.
I think to heal is to perpetually be at the mercy of the world. Solitary mind is a little boy in banter with the slant of light on a lake. I stole duck eggs from frantic nest-mothers. Wanted to birth them under a warm light. To be followed, mother-boy to her ducklings, up and down the trailer park. A still birth instead. I was no god. There was a darkness on the face of my deep. Reflecting pool of home life. I was terrified. And brutish. And gentle. And then I was somewhere else.
Deep breaths. I read another sentence of THE BOOK and am interrupted by the unstoppable collage of memory. Psych ward nurse with angel wing tattoos who brought me books about government conspiracies, strange hotels, a talking dog, dream factories. A prom in the nut house. A riot in the men's room. Deep breaths. I read another sentence, then my body pains me pause. Arrogant mind. No island. I listen to the root of me unravel. I begin to understand the need for faith. I don't want to die. A book on death says that our greatest suffering is our denial that we will one day die. Tend to that in your life, prepare for your ending by being present and equally afterwards. Look ahead but ground to this place, body, thought. There needn't be such separation between word and flesh.
I thought I knew once what had happened to me. It was MY STORY. It explained the discrepancy between the life I wanted and the life I had. In truth it is what gets evoked in what happens to us that becomes the template for our everything. Pain is sensed-in, sensorium, blue and red and gold are all we have. Others have yellow and pink and green. Maps get made, we get lost in them. A story of a woman who goes off looking for her long lost brother (we get to know so vividly everything about her) and by the story's end she is brutally murdered by the man who turns out not to be her brother. It's so unfair. Why does life do such terrible things to us? Why can't we write the perfect ending? Reunion, tears of joy, hands held, sun goes down on golden towns. 20 years ago, the story I read. Why, out of the infinite number of other possibilities, do the things that stay with us, stay with us?
The mind won't sit still. Nor body let up its insistent knocking at every single thought we have. I open the window an inch. No mere metaphor. I light some candles. A gentle wind nestles through the mesh screen into THE HOUSE. My uncle hung himself in this room. My grandmother found him, my grandfather cut him down, the second of three sons to die. My grandmother died in this room. My teenage mother wailed in this room. I was a boy in this room. I have no room for this room.
My cat, Eve, brushes against me. She has curious, not entirely unkind eyes. I smile uneasily. I am uneasy. My body, perhaps, signaling alarms: tend to this room, this life, this now. Put down THE BOOK. Pick up YOUR LIFE. There is only so much of it left. With what, of your days, are remaining, make of them the most that you can. Bring new colors to bear, there, there.
It feels dishonest to end on such an untarnished note of hope. Hope is hopeless. It's why we hope. And why shouldn't we?
After all my years of soul sundering/searching I have found even less answers to my why than I started with. But the questions bear fruit. I am humbled by my stupidity, rigidity, and my soul's desire for jazz. I hate dancing. Even the word. Unhappy people do not dance. People who have been deeply wounded by life do not dance. It's preposterous, I know. Some of the most devastated bodies in this life have danced so joyously the vaulted skies of heaven dropped loose through them. My dystonic mother, to Waylon Jennings, by the fireplace. There is no more pained a body than hers. And I hate dancing. Because if my mother can dance than what the fuck has taken me so long to.
Jean Luc Nancy, a philosopher I greatly love, passed without my knowing. I stopped reading him some years ago. Today I picked up Corpus, and thought of him, and learned that he has left the world. That in the end he wrote he no longer believed in progress and the possibility of “living in the world in a humane way”. And I thought of the fraught relationship I have to this body of mine, whose possibilities in life are limited and changing. I missed the turn for most of the roads I would have rather taken in my life. I regret that I spent so much time with THE BOOK that I missed so much of MY LIFE. And it feels the world is ending while my life hasn't even started. Pessimism is preferable to pain. I'd rather the pain which is an indication of a body in life. To be hopelessly hopeful. Perhaps only the truly hopeless dance convincingly. I saw joy where there was pain in motion. Pain moves us. Orients us. It is river and we are riven.
The world may be slowly ending. It has always been slowly ending. We are a little further along than those before us in this. Is there truly no way to live humanely the end of the world? I prefer the questions these days to whatever poor answer I might proffer. I once asked a pastor how one would know if one was truly beyond redemption. "I think," he replied, "that if you're still asking that question, you're probably not."
Is there truly no way to live, humanely, the end of the world? Of all the turns I missed to those other longed for roads, my life has taken turns nonetheless. Who am I fooling? I have a long way to go, and many ways yet to get there. There there. That book on death was only half right: most pain too is caused by thinking we can know what will happen to us based on what has happened to us so far. Change is an unpredictable muse: sometimes word is already flesh and body only begging you to pull your head up out of the lake of the past to take notice of how far you've come.
You can even dance if you want to.
It is all too easy to lose one's faith; it's a slight of hand in the dark that the self knows all the right moves to - but is faith really so discardable as all that? To be here at all, among the living, is an act of faith. You have to believe things will be different given enough time, enough patience, enough work. It's a great tragedy that we can't see the other side of what we're going through until we are standing on it. Rarely do we know how it was done. It takes a certain disbelieving of the stories we tell ourselves, doesn't it? I don't belong, not really, or I am unloved, or worse, hated through the guise of love. These were stories handed down long ago, chapters added, addendum addendum addendum.
One of the hardest parts of adulthood is that it contains heavy fog areas of childhood trauma. It's daunting to sift through our own badlands, but that of others is a motherfucker. It is not an advisable travel or our trip to make. When we find ourselves in spaces with people that make it extra hard for us to be in those spaces we have to remember that the only choice we have is to choose not to make it extra hard for them, or for anyone else, in turn. Sometimes that means we have to exit the stage for a while, or rethink what we're doing and who we are travelling with.
There is very little in life we have very much control over, but at the top of that list is the behavior of others. It can be easy to become disappointed, to lose one's faith, but it's a parlor trick of the wounded self. When you do anything important in life, anything that requires passion, perseverance and faith, you gotta do it knowing you're gonna get opposition, resistance, kicks in the teeth, cold shoulders, etc. etc. etc. That's just relational gravity, that's the deal of sticking around. You gotta dance with all of it, but not with everybody.
Just because you can get in the ring with someone, and you'd even be justified in doing so, doesn't mean you should. You can walk away. For as long as you need to. And not just from the ones who make it hard for you to be in something. Sometimes you have to step away from the whole deal for a while. Sometimes something is so rotten you can't really make any good out of it. At least for the moment. There's that thing about time again, waiting for more to reveal itself.
Most of us are very broken. Most of us did not receive the necessary emotional equipment for life's slings and arrows. Most of us are bad at figuring out graceful ways to deal with bullshit. And maybe we shouldn't have to. But, I don't much like what the other thing feels like either. So, I mostly choose to quietly exit the party that has turned sour, and mean, and small. To step outside, to look back in longingly but knowing it is what it is and I must walk on.
We meet other's along the way. And that becomes the place we belong. And that place keeps on changing. And so do we. And that's ok. Nothing will ever be what we fully want it to be. A little bit of anything good and true and solid is worth the multiple trips we have to make to wherever it is we belong. Back and forth, again and again. Not until we get it right, just until it feels right, you know.
If you know, you know. When something doesn't feel right you have to trust that part of yourself. Needed revelation. The opposite of losing our faith is accepting that our place in the world is never one place, one moment, alone. It is many. And that's a painful, beautiful fact of this life. We're lucky to be here at all.
I remain grateful. And on that road, up along the wide curve of dark, I go ready to meet those others with an open and loving heart. As I walk, I walk not alone, but expecting. Faith is hard to shake. So long as there is time. Is road. Is us. And holding on. Like this.
The very idea of healing and growth points are repulsive to many, who, for whatever reason, are unable to do the work that healing requires of them. Much of what one finds online is a kind of vacuous, textureless, vapid chatter with no animating or vitalizing spirit behind it. People who eschew Augustinian self reflection and soul searching, who've yet to bet and battle with their own Pascalian wagers. It can seem, at times, as if the ratio is heavily titled towards those who prefer to perform the simulacrum of soul over the range of deeper vulnerabilities that we each carry.
But never you mind that. Do not feed other people's emptiness. It is because they are not doing the work that they feed off of yours. Sometimes seeing someone else be vulnerable and open about their human process is repugnant to those who are not yet equipped to digest their own life's core. Our focus on their lack of soul only lends to them things that they have not earned. We cannot resuscitate anyone who is dedicated to withholding the breath of life, of sincerity, of charity.
And theirs is a work that cannot last. It is not what people will remember a thousand years hence: the crafting of viral insults, cruel and cheap memes, cruelty bonding, bullying, making light of what is heavy, and acting as if when one has yet to truly and sincerely give themselves to this life with everything that is in one to give. What will last is the work that we do with the little time we are given to do it, a deep vulnerability owned and shared, a tending to, that requires of us a stronger will to dig than to be deterred by the emptiness of all that is around us.
There has always been this will to not know. And it is not what we remember of the past. No. We remember Augustine, Pascal, mere names for the digging process. And so too, the future will remember the ones dedicated to healing and transformation and self reflection. Do not let the fact that it is the loudest and crudest and cruelest who inevitably take up the most space convince you that your deeper work is somehow for naught. It is the only work there is.
And when people can't do that work, they resent those who can. Deflective humor and chatter becomes a way to cope with an inability to bear the weight and scars of the self. They degenerate because it is the only option for them at the moment. This is not to say they will never get there. And though it can be exhausting and humiliating sometimes to watch such vapidness on display, when we feed into it, it only makes it stronger. Because they do not have the will or desire to do the work, they must borrow from us, by nibbling at the edges of our vulnerability. That kind of thing comes from a place of pain. How painful, to not be able to be real or sincere. To need to build community around the very ethos that broke us: high school cliques and water fountain gossip and party invites that purposefully leave out those who are just doing their work.
Twitter is a place where people go to not grow. It is an anti-growing tool. And yet, there is a softness that is willed and tended to there, also. That softer side is not meant to be large. Growth has to be dosed out. We cannot take too much of ourselves. We nibble at the edges of our wounds, we try to digest what we can. It is humbling work. Low to the ground, ear to the track. And then the train that delights in steamrolling. But never you mind that.
Just do the good that you are able, and try your very best not to feed other people's emptiness. Know that it cannot last or matter in the end. Authenticity, inner digging, vulnerability, has never been well received in its time. Only after the fact. We can't take too much of it. And so, while it may seem like the most immature, selfish and inauthentic people in any community are the one's who get ahead, you must remember that they are really only ever just standing in place. Growth is movement. And it's hard. Extremely hard. It makes sense that people would prefer to make fun of those who are trying to grow. When we can't do something we tend to want to undo something. To tear a thing or person or process down. And yes, communities can often grow and bond around such empty pastimes. Because it will always be easier to joke and meme and gossip and strike out and go viral then it will be to self reflect and to grow and push back against these anti-growth tendencies.
Just remember, that isn't about you. It's all about them. That's their stuff. You are here to grow. They, for now, are here to show, demean and downplay the fierce gentleness that is required of us on our collective journey towards that "something deeper" than defines us and calls out to us.
There is work to be done. But it isn't found in the emptiness. It is in the fullness of our dug-deep souls that we find what it is we came here for. And to this work we must keep low to the ground, holding our hearts out when it makes sense to, protecting them when we must, but never pretending to be anything less than vulnerable and open to the never-ending work at hand.
To heal is to be real, and to be real takes time.
“A community that is growing rich and seeks only to defend its goods and its reputation is dying. It has ceased to grow in love." ― Jean Vanier
In an interview with the late Genesis P-Orridge, they said so eloquently that humanity is but one organism. If one part of the human organism is hungry, the other parts work to pass food down to the starving parts, if another part is sick, the other parts carry down medicine. It's a belief I strongly share with Genesis. More than any other vision of community, Gen's was one that always made the most sense to me. Why would we ever think we were as singular as all that. Surely, I cannot do or go alone.
I have always thought language to be that vessel of crossing towards our healing homes. What is language if not a blanket thrown over chaos, disorder, meaninglessness? Give words to your pain, indeed. But such words we built together. It seems to me a strange sort of community built around words (all communities are!) but somehow forgetting to pass along what is missing and needed in the other.
For so long people gathered at kitchen tables to tell each other stories. It was the thread that held together the past and the now. But it was also the presence of bodies, warm laughter, a shoulder to cry on. Communes carry the memory of this also: to be with each other is to be for and through each other.
Today, so much of community gets defined by the most superficial of ties. Contests, lists, ranking, popularity, dopamine hits, but without the intimacy that makes community responsive and responsible to each other, the organism suffers a chronic soul fatigue.
A body in pain is what languages reaches out to. We are not here for ourselves. Alone, we know nothing. But together, we know everything by the sensibilities that tell us what part is being left out, what part is in need.
What is community? "A neighbor is not he whom I find in my path, but rather he in whose path I place myself, he whom I approach and actively seek.”― Gustavo Gutiérrez
Yes, but how seek out a thing of which we are already are? The way we are for each other is the measure of soul in our approach. When we come to the end of whatever this life is, the only thing that will have mattered is how much of everything we carried down the line for the parts [of us] each other, that needed it most.
Step into what you already are. Do for others the good that only you can do. There is a kind of special work we are called for, language demands it. Let a poem be a kitchen table again. Listen for the laughter. Be for each other, as if there were but one, and all of it: us.
All too often we assume that there's nothing wrong, or inherently harmful, in not interfering in matters that don't directly involve us. We may even consider it healthy to abstain from doing so. In recovery, after all, we're taught that it's better to keep the focus on ourselves, rather than taking other people's inventory.
Of course there other reasons. If speaking out or intervening would cause unwanted attention or fallout, we'd likely rather just avoid it all together.
When it comes to online bullying, however, I believe that there is a clear moral obligation we have to defuse the situation, most especially if the person being bullied struggles with mental illness. Although I would argue that even a person without mental illness is at risk for potential self harm when being bullied, no matter their age, it is especially urgent that when people with mental illness are being bullied, we intervene to diffuse the situation and make sure the person being bullied is ok.
Our silence is not innocent, it causes real potential harm. It allows a situation to build and build, and the further isolated the person being targeted becomes, the more likely the situation is to possibly take a tragic turn.
In my 6 + years as an editor in the poetry community I have watched, time and again, as a group of very vocal and toxic editors and poets, have engaged in highly unethical and violent mob attacks on often vulnerable individuals who have a history of mental health issues, and my first and only concern has always been for the safety of that individual, irregardless of what their offense may have been. I've made it a point to reach out privately to people who are being bullied online to make sure they are ok and so they know they are not alone. I do this because I myself have been a victim of online bullying within the poetry community that almost tragically ended in suicide, and I don't ever want anyone to feel so alone that they might actually end up leaving this one and only sweet world.
And here's why that's not enough. Because our public silence only allows this problem to perpetuate itself ad infinitum, and eventually it becomes the norm. Would we sit and do nothing to try and help someone if we saw them in immediate danger in daily life? Many do, but we do not consider this the best of our humanity. We're not talking grand heroism here, we're only talking about saying when something is wrong, directly, to the one's doing the wrong. We're talking about making good faith efforts to diffuse and problem solve a situation before it gets out of hand.
But that's not at all what I have witnessed in my time as an editor in the literary community. I've witnessed people not just not intervene when they should, but send very mixed messages about their own ethical priorities by actively supporting the abusive members in our community and, most egregiously, passively and actively participating in the group shunning of vulnerable individuals.
I don't know what it will take for people to be brave and true, but I am exhausted trying to speak to this in the wilderness. My soul is sick and heavy. I have talked with and accompanied people as they were being mentally and emotionally lit on fire by internet mobs, and you know what they say that stays with me most is how alone they feel. And I know exactly what they mean. In fact I ended up not only close to taking my own life when I was being bullied 2 years ago, but also close to relapsing, and that's another huge risk for recovering addicts' who are bullied within our community. As I recently watched a newly recovering addict being bullied online my first prayer was that they not relapse, my second, that they not die.
I am tired of this. I am tired of good people doing nothing. Good people sending mixed messages about their ethical priorities. What do you value? Human life? Mental Health? Recovery? Safety? Human dignity?
My main goal has always been to just try very hard to do the good work I can. To reach out when I can. Offer advice when I can. But most of all, to say when something is wrong, even if it might cost me something to do so. People need to begin prioritizing the safety of others before prioritizing the opportunity to be published in a literary journal run by ruthless bullies.
I almost did not survive what I went through. That should never need to be said by anyone in our community. But I am not geared towards defeat or self pity. This isn't about me, it's about service. I learned it in early recovery: carry the message to the still suffering. You don't ask if someone is deserving of that carrying, you just carry. And if you don't, you are pushing a precious someone down so low that they might not ever get back up again.
I will not be silent. I will not prioritize anyone's comfort over speaking up for victims of bullying. And publishing my poems means absolutely nothing to me if it means not carrying others. Carrying is what we do because to not carry is to crush, is to harm. Are you helping, or are you hurting?
So long as I can provide safe space as the editor of a publication that prioritizes healing, generosity, kindness, repair and recovery, I will continue to do just that. But my career as a poet, I must admit, is over. I'm not interested in publishing poems while people are being beat down every day by people whose voices only get louder and meaner and smaller by way of the soul. There's no place for me in that anymore. My work is in community, in the garden, the tending of wounds, the carrying of messages of hope and care and hospitality, which is always offered to the one whose name and story you cannot know beforehand. That's the risk and nature of the gift. But what you do know is that that knock heard on your door in the dead of night is a query for empathy, for understanding, for a drink of water, a safe place to come in from out of the storm. My God, we only get this one life, why must we insist on getting so much of it so very wrong.
Break the cycle. Be brave. Be true. Unmix your messages, open up your heart, be a warrior for peace and resolution, not a warrior of viral retweets and emotional sharp shooting. Health isn't remaining silent when you see forests of wrong burning all around you, it's rushing in and pulling out those who are on fire. It's bringing water to the burning, a human who is so all alone in it.
Silence is harm. Sound the alarm. Let's do this good work. Because carrying each other is our only 'why.' The only thing worth a goddamn is what you did when no one else around you would. Water the wood, diffuse the fire, bring solutions to the table and plenty of chairs. Circle up, say it true but say it kind. Everything else is a waste of our time.
Speak to it. Speak to it. Just speak.
How do we attend to those "musical dimensions of experience," as Steven Knoblauch, calls them, in ways that will "further enhance contextual awareness [and] contribute to mutative activity?" (P. 82) By musical experiential dimensions I am referring to those micro moments of the unspoken, the unique rhythm and tone of a person's speech, which contain cues to the emotional climate of speakers in ways that often elude the non-verbal. These are sonorous moments, and all of our exchanges contain them. It's pretty hard to imagine our communications would ever really work if we weren't, at least on some small micro level, attending to them in the other, and the other in ourselves.
Michael Balint speaks of the importance of facilitating "the creation of a mutative emotional climate." (p. 160) Good friends have this rhythm with one another which almost comes naturally to them. But with those we don't know so well, that rhythm can not just break down, it can often never really get off the ground in the first place. If so much depends on hitting the right note in music, how do we find ways of hitting that right note with each other in difficult dialogue in a way that might be mutative and productive, rather than abortive and foreclosed? How do we move things along in dialogue?
First, I should frame why I think this matters and the context I think it would be helpful for us to apply it to. When we are engaged in a conversation with someone, all sorts of things are going on that often elude the conscious register of experience. However, because our interactions are inherently relational, there is an extraordinary opportunity, I think, to grasp a bit of the mutually unspoken micro-moment in ways that allow us room to breathe with one another. Where this is most important, but often severely compromised, is when an exchange becomes heated. As passionate creatures, it is often hard to talk about the things we care about without damaging the communicative line.
Because the fate of a dialogic moment often carries with it immense ethical implications, not just for two individuals messily working through something with one another through heated or derailed conversation, but also for communities that have split ideas about an issue and how best to navigate that issue with one another in ways that safeguard our moral integrity. Once we make a turn towards dehumanization or a reduction of the other, at the expense of "opening the moment," and "detoxifying the field," (P. 34) we've almost guaranteed ourselves that "nothing will come of all this," even if immense opportunities exist within the most heated of exchanges for dialogue that moves us along. Darlene Ehrenberg writes;
"The "intimate edge" is not a given, but an interactive creation. It is always unique to the moment and to the sensibilities of the specific participants in relation to each other and reflects the participants subjective sense of what is most crucial or compelling about their interaction at that moment." (P. 35)
Now this is a highly nuanced and not at all easy thing for most of us to access when we find ourselves embroiled in a heated conversation, but why would we think that we don't have at least some access to co-creating better dialogue with one another even in the fits of a wrong conversational turn? If it's something we care about, then it's something that requires us to be understood. And one of the biggest obstacles to our being understood is whether or not we decide to close or open the moment. But that decision is one that must be co-created. Because individuals cannot sustain an open moment with a closed other and because all of our interactions are an at least two person interaction.
Whether or not we're always aware of it, we each have immense power to alter the direction in which a thing is going. That doesn't mean it will work mutatively every time, but to coast along on the communicative line with someone, especially if the moment matters, if a lot is on the line, then we should attempt to improvise a shockingly new note with the other and see how they receive it, and, hopefully, return it. Can an argument turn into a musical moment?
When we are rooted in trauma, we often have trouble finding ways to make such musical improvisations with one another. Dissociation comes easier to us than does a co-creative attempt to open things up again. I don't think our trauma should be an excuse to not at least try very hard to redirect verbal rivers back into larger bodies of conversational waters. If we are engaged in a community and we feel that something of import is being undermined or under-addressed, one of the worst things we can do is to approach it in a closed way that predetermines the response of the other. We see examples of this all too often in our political climate. Have you ever seen two opposing politicians attempt to "open the moment" with one another and strike a different note? Surely it's happened, but it's a sheer miracle when it does.
Politicians typically approach one another with a predetermined understanding that they are bound to be locked into disagreement with one another. Unsurprisingly, not a lot gets done across party lines. When we organize our relationships along a closed axis of predetermined conversational outcomes, we undermine our very ability to make the things that matter most to us work. If we've the idea that there are those who will never be on "our side," we can list off an endless array of reasons why it's so, but if, at the very top of that list, the misguided notion of "a side" isn't listed, we've locked ourselves into a self-defeating relational pattern that guarantees endless turmoil.
But if we believe we share a common fate then it is incumbent upon us to attempt to attend to the small unspoken moments in dialogue where the center shows signs of no longer holding. Before cables break, we might readjust our stance.
When we have bonded with a group of others who share our own unworked through trauma narratives, and who approach dialogue in a closed, abortive and highly dissociated manner, weather or not we can fully admit it to ourselves, the way in which we conduct ourselves can very often end up mimicking the behavior of perpetrators. If we are abusive or cruel or humiliating when we speak, we are engaged in enactments that, even if caused by the wounds of our past, nonetheless also cause real time harm to others. And if the group dynamic disallows or disincentives self reflection among its members of harmful behavior and dialogue, then it is important that people who can see and identify what is going on, speak to it.
Oftentimes when groups talk about accountability they forget that we must also be accountable to ourselves. If accountability means; you need to be accountable to me, then the "me" who is owed accountability presents itself as a closed system to which accountability is merely owed. But we are relational creatures, hence we must be accountable to each other. So often the fate of ensuring actual, durable and doable accountability hinges on musical dialogue that is both emotionally mutative and honest. This kind of accountability is co-constructed to ensure that people really hear one another when they speak.
If, as Margaret Crastnopol writes, we allow ourselves to be "drafted into an exclusive addictive relationship that substitutes for a more benign, richer set of influences and a more fluid internal growth process," (P. 76) then we will oftentimes bond in community with others in a highly addictive, co-dependent fashion, united around core principles of closed, abortive and often predatory conversational ways of being in community. This sets us up not only for disappoint with the things we care about, it ensures that the things we care about are not fully seen, felt and known by the other, which are all things that must happen in order for the integrity of ourselves and our communities to flourish.
Mutual vulnerability is one way in which we can begin to open up our dialogue with one another. But also, by attending to the subtle music we make when we talk, by improvising a generous or surprising note, we might find that moving things along doesn't have to be nearly as hard and contentious as we often make it out to be.
A sad fact of life, and this is especially true where trauma is involved, is that sometimes we need things to fail. But it isn't sustainable and it isn't doable at the community level. It isn't even doable within a family. It should humble us to know that while a lot escapes our knowing, nothing ever completely does. What we dissociate is known, it's just in another room of our experience. If we can find ways to build mutative and creative dialogic bridges with one another, then we might find that more benign, richer and fluid attachments are available to us both in community and in dialogue.
Real community begins by hearing what we tell one another. When we really listen, our bodies register the hope that comes from both being seen, felt, heard and truly known. We are not fated to missing the moment with one another. If someone must play their new note first, why not let it start with you?
Knoblauch, S. (2000) The Musical Edge of Therapeutic Dialogue. The Analytic Press, Inc
Balint, M. (1968), The Basic Fault. London: Tavistock
Ehrenberg, D. (1992) The Intimate Edge: Extending the Reach of Psychoanalytic Interaction. W.W. Norton & Company Inc.
Crastnopol, M. (2015) Micro-trauma: A Psychoanalytic Understanding of Cumulative Psychic Injury. Routledge
I once thought that every warp I had came from my mother. That somehow the emotional clay of me wasn't equally cut into by my father. My father, who was always on the verge of standing up for himself, of seeing it through, some days, of leaving. And how he would crumble into himself, into his music and his own private world. Dissociated islands. Oh. That's how I learned about soul marooning. That was how I lived my life for a very long time. And some days still, when the thought of full escape, full bloom, full stepping into, feels too long a journey to make.
But I've come a long way. And I both do and do not know how. That's the rhythm of healing, I suppose. My father, always trapped, almost two feet out the door. Wasn't my mother trapped, too? By her own body, the warp, for her, was physical. Twisted at the spine, bent like a felled tree still clinging to it's sturdier half, my father? Why not. I get it. It broke me, and it didn't, and I get it. If not for them, no me. No nothing. Life isn't nothing. It wasn't all nothing.
My father knew how to fight when it mattered. My mother's mind was a tower of spirit. And her heart, no matter how dark it could get, and oh, it could get dark, was the thing that taught me sound, was the thing that made me, me.
Forgiveness is acceptance. You don't truly forgive, if we ever even truly do, until you understand what made a person who they are. You read their story. It's your story too. It's the greatest story ever told. It hurts like hell each time you tell it. It's also terribly beautiful. This. All of this. Everything that happened. It didn't have to happen, but it happened.
The warp is also love. I, like they, was made outside of something beyond my control. It's a long story. We've no choice but to tell it. No choice, maybe, but to forgive. We're all Jakob, at the foot of that ladder. Acceptance is the angel. Love is the trip. And all that pain, it comes in handy sometimes. It's a compass I open.
In loving memory of Eleanor Sharkey
This interview was originally solicited as part of a series by a publication that unfortunately never saw publication. The series asked poets to read the work of a poet that they admired and then speak about the impact of that poem on their lives. What follows is a testimony to the heartbreaking and earth shattering event of helping our loved one's die with dignity and kindness, as embodied in the end of life care that I provided for my Grandmother in her final week of life, and in Jorie Graham's beautiful poem written for her parent's own end of life care. Today is the one year anniversary of my Grandmother's death, and in honor of her beautiful life and spirit I wanted to make this interview and reading available to my friends and family. I hope that it says the impossible, offers healing, for those who have lived through this grief also, as this interview helped me to heal, hold and process a lot of grief. I can only hope that it might do the same for someone else in need of comfort and reassurance.
Q: Why did you choose this poem to read of Jorie's?
JD: Most of all because it’s a poem about loss and death and accompanying the one’s we love in their crossing, wherever it is such crossings take them, and these very difficult, devastating things, have been my life's experience of late. This poem has been a great, healing comfort to me in my grief. Six months ago I was tasked with providing end of life care for my Grandmother on hospice, and so this poem guts me, in that way that only the things we’ve actually lived through can, when we hear them resung to us (what an impossible song) in poems or stories. In our culture, no one prepares you for helping someone to die, (we don’t talk about death very much at all) or for tending and guiding the ailing through their pain to gentle rest. It transforms you, destroys you, tosses you, shreds you, and I have not been able, not really, to find any adequate words for such an event, at least not in any poem that I have written of late. But I found the words here, in this poem, and in a few others from the same book, Fast, which also talk about Jorie’s father’s passing. Her poem, Reading to My father, is another huge comfort and compass to me. She sits with the body of her Father after his final breath, wondering; “what do I tell my child,” and I think she means ‘what will I tell my child about this moment that the two of us will also come to one fateful day, how prepare them for this?’ One cannot. What is there to say? But it must be said; the poem tries to say something about it. That we cannot learn this, that we cannot know who we will be afterwards, until we are in that new country known as afterloss. We must live through the terrible absence that is left. We, who are left living, must live. Even after.
This poem in particular, The Medium, says so much that I know as truth. There are the hard, basic details;
“leave the vial nearby / want to see it / make sure there is enough / ask the doctor if more can be taken.” And there is the metaphysical;
”She will finish her business and let go of the stories. The stories are an impediment. You must be in them now, you tell me, but they are all string and knot, they catch you up - spilled blood - the love - the car is pushed - the time is right - your symbol, your scene, your outcome - how I wish I could pull you free, you say.”
I realized, for my Grandmother, the stories were very much an impediment, the; who I am, where I come from, my people, my place, she had to be able to let them go, these stories, in order to let go one last time, herself. How to even describe such a process, yet Jorie has found a way, so impossibly and beautifully. “It was so beautiful he says thank you you took such care the passage was a lovely path - and I look at the room - we have cleaned it up - we have changed the place.” How describe that almost sacred moment of recognition when one encounters a poem that is one's very life right now, only that I cannot even write this without weeping, I am writing this to you in tears. That is the poem, its power, and why I chose it. Why it chose me. Poems, they sometimes choose us also.
“How did you get out - do we ever get out,” Jorie asks. And she means it, this question. How do we? Where did you go in your going? What am I to do with still being here without you? With this absence that is very much present? ‘You took such care the passage” oh, but what a toll it took on us, and we do not know just what to do with where we’ve been.
“Something holds its hand out here and it means it, it is not begging, not a gentle request, also take off your shoes your heart your skin it says, take it all off, the palm outstretched, the palm waiting, take it all now, the thing you call you.”
The thing we call us, it’s been stripped down in this moment, the poem says it all, almost everything. We are never the same, but we know now, I mean, we really know, what it means to hold out a hand to someone and to mean it.
Q: In our emails, you mentioned that Jorie Graham is your favorite poet. What draws you to her work?
JD: I think it’s the impossible way that Jorie, somehow, miraculously writes the thing itself, the almost unsayable dimension of our lives, how she finds a way to make the unsaid said. She asks such big questions but she never pretends to answer them. In some ways, I think, her questions are the answers, and I think we really don’t know what to do with that yet. Question/answers. How can a question be the key to the lock of our world? How can it not?
Yet as deep as she goes she also cares very much about the every day, the little disappointments, betrayals, pains and hunger. She never abstracts the voices in her poem, they feel very much a part of one thing. When she writes, for instance, of a homeless man outside a convenience store that she gives a meal to, she doesn’t make him backdrop to the poem, he is centerpiece, center-heart. What do we do with this moment, how do we heal it, help it?
What is the world we are making, what is the world we are accepting? There is a difference. The question questions us along this border. I find this strategy so much more effective than many poems that try to do the same in a more aggressive way, they lack, most of them, the questioning-answer spirit. They are too quick to hand over the answer. And something, someone, is missed then.
Someone is suffering. Pause. Let it in. Someone is, pause, suffering. Now it’s the world, becoming, pause, uninhabitable. We won't be able to live here much longer if we keep going down this path. What do we do? What are we being asked to do? The question unsettles, undoes us. For me, this is Jorie’s singular power, she has found a way to make said the unsaid, to question the question. But most of all, she makes human and felt everything that she writes. As philosophical as her poems may be, they are also terribly human and recognizable and far less complicated than we think they are. They are down to earth. But they also ask us, how much longer will we have this earth to be down on?
Q: When and how did you first discover her work?
JD: I was very young, about 20. I found a collection of her poems at my local library called ‘The Dream of The Unified Field’. At that point I had only ever read Plath, Sexton, Ginsberg and Bukowski. But here was something so different and very much needed at that point in my life.
I was very depressed then, lost, and suicidal. I was very much ready to die, I even had a plan. And for some reason, that day, I picked up the book and read this line by Jorie; “are you sure you want to kill yourself? Do you not, maybe, just want to sleep it off again this time?” That literally saved my life, that life-line, it pulled me back into myself. “Oh, that’s right,” I said to myself, “I guess I could always just sleep it off again this time.” And so I did.
I discovered Jorie's work in crises and in transition. It changed the course of my whole life. I became convinced then of the utter healing capacity of the poem. If a poem wasn’t holding out a hand and meaning it, what good was it? And I wanted to learn how to do that too. How to offer a hand. Werner Herzog once said that a filmmaker should treat every roll of film as if it’s the last roll of film available on Earth. I think the poet, and Jorie is the lodestar here, should try to treat every poem as if it has the capacity to save a life. I realize that might sound reductive. Poems can and should be able to do all sorts of things. And prescribing a mission contradicts the path of questioning, it demands and it demands too much. I think I only mean that it has a part to play in offering its hand to someone. The form that that takes will always vary. A poem never has to reach out a hand in the same way twice. And in fact it never does. But isn’t that why it saves us? The novelty of the lifeline.
Q: Your reading of “The Medium” was lovely to listen to—kudos! What was your experience like reading this poem out loud? Have you read it aloud for an audience before?
JD: Thank you so much, that is so kind of you to say. I haven’t read it aloud to an audience before, but reading it for this series was certainly very emotional and cathartic. I attended a small reading that Jorie gave quite a few years ago and I was struck by just how embodied she was as a reader. Much centered on her breathing with and into the words in different ways. There was so much soul in her voice, and pause and emphasis and urgency. I don’t know if I’ve quite gotten there yet in my own readings, but as I listen back to my reading of this poem I can feel the soul come alive in it. I think that a large part of that is my shared life-experience with the poem and with the theme of loss it is conveying. Another part of it, perhaps, is that this poet, Jorie, has saved my life. And that all these years later, in my grief and unspeakable loss, I plumb her depths once again to find comfort, that hand reaching out through the page.
One last word on Jorie, the word urgency. There is a sense, in each of her poems, of urgency. Time is running out, there are things that must be said. The hour is getting late, not just for the fate of our planet, but for the fate of the one’s we love. The fate of strangers even. There are so many things that must be said, and, as Cheryl Strayed puts it, “we will regret the one small thing we didn’t say for the rest of our lives.” And we will regret the one small meal that we didn’t give to the man, woman or child who needed it. We will regret the thing we could do but didn't do to make things better for each other. We will regret the hand that we didn’t reach out. We must reach out. There is much to be said, but it all starts with the outstretched hand.
“Hiding is a way of staying alive… of holding ourselves until we are ready to come into the light.” -David Whyte
Not all who are broken must keep on breaking. But that comes later. Much later. There is no time limit for when it might happen, a specific day when suddenly you are different than the day before. That is the magic version of change. The realer, more frustrating one is so constant and small, so day by day, hour by hour, that you could not be blamed for missing it. Some of our greatest wounds stem from what we cannot see, the slight but meaningful alterations of who and how we are in the world.
Something goes wrong in every life. But our traumas are not like chalk on a sidewalk, they are durable, resilient. They are both reminders and remainders, stowaways and thieves, a blessing and a curse. How is anything that upends us useful? It is not unreasonable for us to ask this, it’s just naive. Nothing in nature takes place unopposed, lighting strikes a tree and leaves it charred. A body remembers its blows, a mind its warps and deformations. We make due with what is at hand. For some of us there is much less at hand than others. There is no one size fits all for coming through a trauma-tsunami, and if every last one of us are refugees of something, and I hazard that we are, the way that we get there matters less than the fact that, if we’re lucky, we do eventually arrive someplace other than the eye of the storm.
Just across the border of intolerable pain is a small shanty of slightly better light. We manage to take down a few boards over the years. Eventually we decide to rebuild the roof rather than lay out so many buckets along the floor. But don’t knock the prior method, it kept the floors dry. It kept us breathing. The method to such madness is the way we hold together what wants nothing more than to break apart. You see it in total despair, what letting go looks like. Until one morning out on the yard, the light through the trees holds someone’s gaze for just a moment, a gaze which had been held to ground all year long. The nurses logbook won’t register it. You could not be blamed for missing it. But there it is. A life hiding until it can handle the sight of a tree branch again. Identify a body that still takes up room, and deserves to do so.
“When we make a friend of what we previously could not face, what once haunted us now becomes an invisible, parallel ally.” -David Whyte
Beautiful words remind us of what our lives truly are, creative blanks teeming with mercy. That we have the ability to both tear down and rebuild is no accident. We destroy and mend and destroy again. Can you imagine a life where this rhythm was absent? Where nothing was ever broken? That soft place to land, the great songs all carry us there. But it’s only because we arrive there ragged and worn thin that we know how soft it is to rest a while. To feel impossibly whole. Impossibly?
But that comes later. For now you are just hanging on. Fighting for dear life. Dear life, I am fighting for you.
We hide from what we know or what we know hides from us. The latter is how we survive for a season. Several seasons. Dead skin becomes new again but still feels old. We come so close to losing it all, the very little we have.
That very little is a kingdom. Any life that has not yet crossed over into who knows what or where, if anything, is something of a delayed marvel. In depression the color is blue. But out of it is blue itself, the wonderful dynamic of blue.
“Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that we are miraculously part of something, rather than nothing. Even if that something is temporarily pain or despair, we inhabit a living world, with real faces, real voices, laughter, the freshness of a cold wind, or the tawny hue of a winter landscape… Being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attentin” -David Whyte
When I was newly clean my first sponsor gave me the assignment of a gratitude list. Since everything that came out of my mouth back then was cloaked in negativity he thought I might benefit from admitting what was not so obvious to me at the time, that I had a hell of a lot to be grateful for, all things considered. I was not considering all things. “What do I have to be grateful for?” I asked. “How about the clothes you’re wearing, or the fact that you’re not in jail and have a place to stay tonight, and are on your way to a meeting to carry the message of hope to the still suffering addict?” He wanted 25 things. I thought I had never been given a taller order. I may have only come up with 15 things to be grateful for then. ONLY. Fifteen. That’s a lot. Air=lungs=oxygen= sometimes you count your blessings from scratch.
There are times when such lists would be a perverse solution. When your spouse is dying from the last stages of cancer no one wants to be thankful that they have food in the fridge. There are hours where nothing can or should add up. After one’s world has been upended the universe might as well have imploded. Sound vanishes, you’re in a vacuum and the color is only black, not black itself, just, black. Dark. No light. No sound. No answers. No questions. Just the pain rising into your throat.
Sometimes to accompany another in that space is to witness a life falling to pieces. To acknowledge pieces. People need to know they can be seen even if what they are showing you is ghastly. We’re not all up for such a sight. Sometimes the wounded wound others in a last ditch effort to connect.
“I can’t say that what I provide him in these moments is so much containment as it is company or maybe containment through company. Why do we sometimes devastate others, maybe most particularly those we love the most? I have a strong sense that we often do it because our most broken, most annihilated selves crave companionship, and we really don’t know what else to do.
This collapse into being with another, the deepest states of the other – isn’t this something of the kind of sensitivity that gives our annihilated states a home?” -Michael Eigen
To sit with the ghastly, ghostly chapters of someone else’s life, to bear hearing what they have to tell us. And for them, the agony of saying it, what happened. What is still happening. It is sometimes more witness than wisdom that is needed. Witnessing pieces that might never be whole again. Picking through the rubble, catching light where it may accidentally or purposefully stray in. Just to be there, when it happens.
Some die alone, others live that way. But still “we sit at the table as part of every other person’s world…To sit among friends or strangers, hearing many voices, strange opinions; to intuit inner lives beneath surface lives, to inhabit many worlds at once in this world, to be a someone amongst all other someones…that everything both happens with us and without us, that we are participants and witness all at once.” -David Whyte
Even alone we are not always. And yet we sometimes are. Emotional truths may not hold up in court but they are the most basic stuff of our shattered lives. I feel, therefore I am. Who really knows how change happens? The fact that it does is far more important than how much of it takes place or the degree to which we feel a life has been fully lived. The living is implied in the word.
Is it better to have never been born? I wouldn’t know, and neither would you. We’ve been born. Here we are. It feels awful most of the time. More is lost than is ever found. We want one thing for our lives but end up with something entirely different. Some of us don’t get the parents we need. Or even the basics, enough food, shelter. Nothing can make that okay. Some things hurt so much that all you can do is acknowledge it for what it is, painful. Witness for someone, for yourself.
There are hard facts on the ground.
“Ground is what lies beneath our feet. It is the place where we already stand; a state of recognition, the place or the circumstances to which we belong whether we wish to or not. It is what holds and support us, but also what we do not want to be true…To come to ground is to find a home in circumstances and in the very physical body we inhabit in the midst of those circumstances and above all to face the truth, no matter how difficult that truth may be; to come to ground is to begin the courageous conversation, to step into difficulty and by taking the first step, begin the movement through all difficulties, to find the support and foundation that has been beneath our feet all along: a place to step onto, a place on which to stand and a place from which to step.” -David Whyte
The clothes I am wearing, the roof over my head, the places I have been and the places I am going. Hurting more often than not, I have been born. I cannot say if it would have been better otherwise. I don’t have access to otherwise. All I have is here, and now. The ground beneath my feet, and up above, sometimes, every so often, even, a little light. Not much, but just enough.
I am sitting here tonight, a rather cold night, reading about a five year old boy, a very disturbed child who had been abandoned in a crib during a house fire and is being treated with play therapy by Annie Rogers. In “A Shining Affliction” Rogers writes about her therapy with this boy, Ben, and about how his trauma reopened her own. It’s not only a painful read, it is one that I find reopens my own trauma as well. As I read this book I almost, not almost, I really feel as if I am five years old again. And yet Annie writes as if in anticipation of the reader, too, falling apart. There is a quiet, felt reassurance. After the following passage I had to stop reading as it was becoming too much to hold;
“He did not give up. His vital being demanded contact. And now he goes on recreating the torment, trying forever to reinstate the missing response. I am certain that his pain is precisely as serious as it sounds.”
This comes after having to restrain Ben as he bites and hits Annie, securing him to the floor so that he cannot harm either one of them. Annie interprets this as the only way Ben knows how to get what he truly needs and never got; an appropriate response and someone to keep him safe through contact.
This set off my own inner landmines and I felt sixteen again. At that time I was institutionalized for two years. Often I did such similar things to reinstate the missing response of rescue, of people to keep me safe. I would attempt to jump from high stairwell landings in the hospital, less to kill myself than to be grabbed and held to the floor, to be kept safe by someone, anyone, through the contact of rescue.
There was always a risk involved with every jump, the staff might not have reached me in time, but they did. I remember needing that, this extreme, painful risk, to know that I could be met with a good response, a rescue. It’s not ideal to have to get what we needed, long ago. like that.
The only way we know how to feel safe sometimes is to put ourselves in danger.
I can only read “A Shining Affliction” in small bites, how quickly it overwhelms me, to remember those two turbulent years of my life.
I think that some trauma is like a haunting, and while a house can be vanquished of its spirits for many years, there are still some nights when our ghosts must make themselves known again. Perhaps we’re supposed to make a reasonable amount of room for our ghosts, not banish them forever. Out of sight is not out of mind. Maybe some ghosts need to be held to the floor, safely pinned, reassured.
But I am not sixteen anymore. I am a thirty seven year old reading about a five year old who is reminding me of a sixteen year old. I am holding the ghost as best I can so that it cannot harm me or others. I am learning (will I ever stop learning) to love such ghosts.
“Language is a house with lamplight in
its windows, visible / across fields.”
This line is tucked into Annie’s book and takes my breath away. Language saves, holds to the floor, rescue, contact, and sometimes, by some wild and unknown grace, offers up the appropriate, missing response. Imperfectly. And so our ghosts must return. If ever they left.
“[We] made a new sanctuary within each of our stories. A place where love survives unbearable loss.” -Annie Rogers