Another Year To Reflect

Every year, heading into New Year's Eve, my holiday trifecta of emotional roller coasters reaches it zenith. I begin feeling sad around Thanksgiving when I realize, as I get older, more and more people have left my life. Christmas seems rigged against me as I pull out decorations that are attached to memory after memory recalling both those I wish were still around and those I wish I could forget. Then, I feel the final slide into New Year's Eve when it seems the whole world appears to be celebrating a giant party that I don't get.

Ever since I can remember, no matter what has happened in my life that year, at midnight on New Year's I will be hiding somewhere, crying. My mother used to have parties with what seemed like a hundred people. Laughing. Eating. Drinking. Dancing. And I had a great time until the countdown started. While everyone was kissing each other Happy New Year, banging pots, clacking noisemakers, I was in the upstairs bathroom, door locked, crying.

Maybe it's the strains of "Auld Lang Syne," written by Robert Byrns, Scotland's national bard. The title roughly translates into "long, long ago" or "days gone by." Maybe I channel some old world energy that was handed down through emotional DNA I don't even know about or that I am just naturally prone to internalize emotional melancholy;  anyone who has ever read my poetry would easily agree. But the song brings a lump to my throat from the first chord.

Maybe it was the frenzied strings of "Golden Slippers" from the mummers, an obligatory song pick for anyone who has grown up in Philadelphia. Or, maybe it's just the idea of time passing and people moving on that overwhelms and saddens me. I have always hated saying good-bye.

I really have no idea why crying is my instinct when  that countdown begins every year. I sometimes feel that I am doomed to see the world through my emotional response to loss rather than possibility. So this morning I decided to find another way to take stock this year. I decided to look at what I have accomplished in my life for this year alone. Let's see where that takes me.

As this year comes to a close, I have to admit, I see more positive things happening than in the past. I've had a few poems and a creative nonfiction short published. I've had quite a few reviews published and I am putting finishing touches on the first draft of my thesis for my MFA. I have met and worked with some amazing women writers, whom I really admire, and I begin the new year as the new Nonfiction Editor for r.kv.r.y. Even I have a hard time finding something depressing in all that and am glad to begin to see the results of working hard at my craft and putting my work out there.

My grandmother was a seamstress who worked in a "sweat-shop" in Philly with rows and rows of other women who were treated badly and paid even less. I don't know if my grandmother even went to school.  She was versed in classical music, opera and the arts, I assume, taught from the nuns at the convent who taught her how to sew.  My mother was forced to quit high school, pass up a scholarship to study opera in Rome and go to work because that's what the family needed. This is how they got through The Great Depression.

My grandmother worked in those shops, sewing men's suits by hand, until she retired after a heart attack at 68 years old. My mother got her GED, took a Civil Service test and worked at the post office for a while until she took over the business office for her husband's orthodontic appliance business. Not a bad climb from the waitress jobs she had when she was divorced with three kids in the 1950's.

So here I stand, staring into the face of 2011. BA in Writing Arts in one hand, thesis draft in the other, staring down the final semester and thesis defense for my MFA. I suddenly realize I may be the first generation of women in my family, in this country anyway, that has actually had a chance to go after what she wanted. The first one that has been able to pursue her first love, writing, on a major scale. Maybe it's time to give back the sadness to the "days gone by" and celebrate my liberation from them. Maybe this year I can burn these melancholic strings holding me to the sadness of the past and sing out loud for my own successes on midnight this New Year's Eve. Who knows? I may even find a way to write some comedy in 2011, sick and slightly twisted dark comedy, but comedy none-the-less. Well come on, you weren't expecting a Christmas miracle now were you?

But having said all that, here is wishing you all a wonderfully blessed 2011. May you have the strength to climb mountains, the wisdom to build bridges and the blessing of over-flowing rivers of abundance in your lives.

Survivor

I didn't realize the significance of my story "Breathing" being published in the October issue of r.kv.r.y. when I got the news from Editor-in-Chief Mary Akers in August. I was, instead, straddling a vast chasm of emotions from excitement about the story being accepted and realizing that this particular story--the story of my first marriage--was the story that would be out there in cyberspace. I kept going back and forth from total excitement and fear that people would hear this story and see me differently. I didn't want anyone to see me as a victim, feel sorry for me, or see me as anything other than a strong capable survivor who found a way to make her life work.

And, I have to admit that in that first marriage I turned away from the truth and from the red flags that were there long before he ever raised a hand. There was the advance evidence of a lack of moral fortitude and a slightly askew sense of right and wrong that my ex-husband possessed. So for many years I lived in a sort of haze believing that the devil I knew was easier to live with than the devil I didn't know. You see, back then, in my world, there would always be some sort of devil.

It took a really long time to realize that I could actually have a life without devils; without abusive behavior; without putting up with intentionally hurtful or out of control people. It took an even longer time until I could finally begin to draw lines in the sand and demand to be treated with dignity and respect. Leaving my first marriage was just the first step.

The reason leaving was only the first step was because he was not the only person I allowed to treat me that way. My acceptance of domestic abuse started from when I was a very young girl.  It was something I grew up accepting because it was all around me.  How could I expect to grow up and see the world any differently?

So my hope with this story is that others will see that there is a way to get out. There is no reason anyone should be allowed to treat anyone this way. Women have to know that there is life after abuse.

If you know someone who is in this kind of a situation; someone who just got out; someone who has been out for years; and more importantly: someone who is heading into a marriage or relationship like this, please, pass my story along. I was strong enough to get out and save my life. We can only pass that strength to others by sharing our stories. Here is mine:

"Breathing can be severely compromised if your soon to be ex-husband’s knee happens to be in the middle of your chest, pinning you to the couch, as he wraps his fingers around your throat and squeezes.

It’s funny the things that run through your mind. You think about the already packed bags and boxes ready for their escape at the front door. You think about the empty apartment waiting for you. You imagine the rooms and how safe you will be there: alone. You wonder what the police will say because you are wearing these old lady pajamas with lace on the edges of the sleeves and pant bottoms. You wonder if your daughter will see you and be embarrassed that you are wearing the ugliest pajamas in the world when your body is found and she will have to live with that image burned into her brain for the rest of her life."

To read the entire story follow this link to the October issue of r.kv.r.y.

October issue of r.kv.r.y.

The October issue of r.kv.r.y. is now live! New Editor-in-chief Mary Akers has chosen sixteen hard-hitting poetry, fiction and nonfiction pieces for the October issue.

Congratulations to Mary, the members of her editorial board and everyone involved for a great issue!

I am very proud to have my nonfiction story "Breathing" included with the talented writers and artist Dawn Estrin's amazing images. Please join me in supporting all the contributors to the October issue of r.kv.r.y.

Boys Acting Out

Late Sunday morning, my husband and I were standing in the long deli line, ticket in hand, waiting for our number to pop up on the counter. I was checking messages on my iPhone when I heard a young boy call his mother a "stupid jerk-off" and saw the cart slamming into her thigh as he pushed it toward her.

As a survivor of domestic violence, I always hear these kinds of things in stores.  I seem to have developed spider sense hearing when voices are raised, when names are called, when shoving ensues.  I don't know why I always seem to be there when a man pushes a woman up against the brick wall outside of Wa-Wa, grabs a woman by the jacket under the stairs at Garden State Mall, or when a woman is running through the parking lot at Deptford Mall screaming, "Somebody call the cops, he's going to kill me." Maybe its because I will step in, tell them to stop, let them know that they are not in a bubble and that someone is aware of what is going on while calling mall security, 911, store managers or whatever apparent authority is appropriate for the incident.

But these two boys, who where exhibiting this same behavior were only about 10-12 years old. They were angry and red faced, calling her names and pushing the cart filled with groceries at her viciously. She was trying to subdue them as people do with children acting out in public places, with emphatic whispers that the boys knew meant nothing. Evidently they wanted her to purchase something and she had said "no." While the one boy shoved the cart at her, the other stomped over to the door, pulled the item  out slammed the door and threw it into the cart.  She said, "I told you no." and picked up the item to return it and the cart-pusher spun the cart and sent it crashing into another display about five feet away from where they were standing.

So I made my way over to where they were and told the boys they were being rude and disrespectful to the woman, the other shoppers and the store itself by acting this way. Told them to have some respect for her and for themselves and that they should be ashamed of how they were acting in public.

At that the cart pusher balled his hands up into two fists and started looking for something to throw. This child was absolutely enraged.  His face was red, he was panting, gritting his teeth and actually started making a noise in his throat that sounded like a growl.  So I told him that if he continued to act out and throw stuff around the store I was going to call the store manager.

This is how my stepfather acted when he lost his temper: this red-faced panting, clenching and unclenching of fists, this looking around for something or someone to toss, punch, break, hit or slam. The boy stopped pacing and seemed to be calming down when his mother said, "Are you happy now that you've made a scene?" She meant that my speaking up is what caused a scene and not how they were treating her. I also recognized this statement as one my mother made often about my stepfather's acts of violence.

So it really got me to thinking when do we take this type of rage in children seriously? If we wait until it manifests itself in a domestic violence case as an adult, we've lost them. Do we wait until they are teenagers and acting out? If I saw this rage in a supermarket, what do his family, teachers, and neighbors see?  And, when is it appropriate for someone to step in and try to stop it, call attention to it, or even attempt to help. Why does it not upset everyone when they see this already uncontrolled rage in a twelve or so year old boy?

I know that there are those that think it was none of my business.  That I should have acted like all the other shoppers had, walking away head shaking, tsk, tsk, tsking and there but for the grace of Goding and just gone about my shopping silently and ignore the whole thing. But I can't, I have to admit that after living through these types of rages, I am tuned in to them in public because they still make me feel unsafe.  I call the cops because I couldn't when I was a child. It would have been some sort of mortal sin to do that simply because it was my family.

And maybe this Sunday morning incident had nothing to do with my childhood and simply was none of my business.  I followed my instinct going over to them to try to stop the scene. I wanted to get them to stop treating her like it was okay for them to threaten and bully her.  Who knows, maybe I am still trying to save my mother. But everything in me screamed that this was domestic violence, even though the perpetrator was a child.

What has this child been exposed to that being so angry and out of control was acceptable behavior? How had he known it was okay to be physically and verbally threatening to his mother? I couldn't help but wonder, was he only repeating how he saw his father, grandfather, stepfather, uncle or brother treat his mother or other women? Did he think that witnessing this kind of behavior gave him permission to do the same? This child has already learned the first and most damaging thing he could possible learn at his age: that verbally and physically threatening a woman is what you do when you don't get what you want. The cycle continues.

Putting It All Out There

I used to think that talent and technical ability were the most important thing in writing. That was when I was writing primarily science fiction and hiding behind abstract ethereal poetry. Now that I have plunged headlong into the creative non-fiction deep end, I am finding that I can't fall back on technical tricks anymore. Because the stories I am writing are taken from my own experiences, readers can pick out a technical maneuver used to avoid being completely honest in a minute.

Since I do want to find the most honest point of origin, I thought I'd share a list of questions I am beginning to ask myself before I even think about putting anything on the page.  This is certainly not an exhaustive list just a few things I try to think about as a first step.

1. Why do I want to tell this story now?

If the story is purely for a cathartic experience I may not be able to get out of my own way in order to make this a really good story. Although a well written story can be cathartic for the writer, there needs to be more than just a big emotional spew in order to make it a well-written, interesting story that accomplishes something.

2. Is this a story that is only about a raw emotion that still stings?

If this story is still such an emotional hot-spot, I may not be able to see the whole picture.  If I can't see the whole picture, my reader will be left out of the most important parts of the story and just won't get it. In cases like this, I may have to write a complete emotional spew, set the draft aside for a while and then revisit it when I have some perspective. This could be a day, a month or, sometimes, even years before I am able to approach it in a way that will do justice to the story.

3. How is this story relevant to me now, as an adult?

While stories about childhood memories or past traumas can be enlightening, emotionally charged or entertaining, there must be more to it than merely recalling a memory. There must be some lingering quality to the story. Some sort of impact on my current adult life in order for it to be a story that is relevant to me now. There must be distance and an arc of understanding or some sort of wisdom to set against the initial story in order for it to remain relevant, not only to me as a writer, but to the reader as well.

4. Is this a story that I can be completely honest about?

This may be the most important question I ask myself when dealing with memoir, because if I can't be honest about all phases of the story, including my own character or actions, then the story won't ring true and readers will be running around screaming that my narrator is "unreliable" and not to be trusted.

5. Can the narrator in the story stand back far enough so that the reader can make up their own minds about who the protagonist, antagonist or anti-hero might be in the story?

If I cannot create a narrative voice that can allow the reader to make up their own mind about all of the characters in the story, my story will have one-dimensional  people that just lie flat on the page. Any drama, tension or hint of an arc of understanding or wisdom about why I wanted to tell the story in the first place may be lost on everyone.

How Do We Portray Violence When We Are Writing About Violence?

There has been such an outcry about Eminem's new video. I Love The Way You Lie.  People are concerned that this glorifies domestic violence or is going to tell young kids that beating each other up is "cool" or "okay." People are also upset because Rihanna, after her experiences, is singing lyrics like "I like the way it hurts" but, much to my own surprise, I see this video in a much different light.

As most of you know, I write a lot about growing up in a violent home.  I also write about my experiences in a very violent marriage that actually ended with my ex-husband trying to strangle me one night.  I have not written about many of these things just totally balls-out honest because, these are the "secrets" we are taught not to talk about it. 

I didn't talk about how violent my marriage was when I was going through it either but, come on: did people around me really not know? Three weeks of turtle necks? Moving out without furniture or enough income to support me and my daughter? Three times? Really? No one saw the finger bruises that went all the way up to my jawbone? No one put it together with having no voice for weeks because my larynx was bruised?  Just like no one saw the bruises down my arm and down my back when I was in eighth grade because my mother had a manic episode and I was the only one home so I became her target?

Well, you know what, I think that's all bullshit.  Because  people asked what happened.  In the eighth grade when I didn't say "oh I fell off my bike" or, "I fell down the stairs" but instead said, "My mother beat me" because I needed help. My friends and teachers  just shook their heads and gave me sad, helpless looks; but no help. 

And, later, when friends and co-workers asked what happened and I said, "He tried to kill me last night" in a hoarse, whisper while drinking only warm liquids and chain smoking because I couldn't swallow solid food for weeks.  All anyone could say was, "he's an ass" or, "you need to get away from him." But no one could help me do that.  No one had a clue.  And neither did I. It was easier for everyone to walk away and not see it.  Not see the violence; not get involved.

One of the most embarrassing things anyone ever said to me when I was a teenager was: "We know what goes on at your house." I wanted to crawl into a deep pit and never come out.  And that was the last time I shared a lot about my childhood.  I became fearful that people would find out about what happened to me.  I continued to be a victim because when people found out, they couldn't deal with it and they left my life.  So I kept silent and didn't get close to people for fear that they would find out and think less of me.

So when I see someone have the courage to just put it out there, just as it was: with all the ugliness and violence and "politically incorrect" images that look like they could have come out of my life, I kind of feel a little satisfaction. Because when you live it, and I mean REALLY live it; not overhear it; not  see a newscast about it; not know someone, who knew someone, who once might have had a black eye;  you see it differently.  Because if you don't fight back; if you don't become as violent as they are; you are dead. Period.

So my question to you, as a non-fiction writer is this: How do you depict this violence without being violent? And, how do you write about this knowing that somewhere someone is going to tell you that you are glorifying violence. That you are telling it wrong.  That maybe you shouldn't be telling it at all. Or, maybe that it just shouldn't be so violent. That you should make these characters sympathetic for your reader.

Well, you can't. Not and be true to the story and what you lived through.  I've spent my life hiding these things.  Not wanting anyone to know that this is where I came from.  That this is how I lived. And when I do tell it, it's as if I was the one that has done something wrong.  As if by telling it exactly how it was I am still doing something wrong.

So I will leave you with a quote from Tobias Wolf, from his recent reading at Ashland University, on the subject of how he depicted his step-father in This Boys Life:

"If he didn't want me to write about it, then maybe he shouldn't have done it."

Post MFA Session Quandaries

After spending 14 days going to workshops, listening to readings, doing my first reading of a creative non-fiction piece, meeting writers like Natasha Tretheway and Tobias Wolf (just to name two of the amazing guest writers) not to mention the tirelessly available MFA instructors for Ashland University, I find myself slightly off kilter.

I am strangely drawn, at 11:45, to walk over for lunch and talk to people about our morning session.  I am a little lonely when 5:30 rolls around and my dog, Odessa, could care less about the breakthrough I've had or the frustration I am having reaching down deep enough to get the image just right.  I remember what the large screen box sitting in my living room is and find that the shows recorded on my DVR hold less interest than they did before I left.

I'm happy to be home but am already missing the people that graduated whose company and encouragement was so valuable to me over the past year.  I miss our suite-mates Barb and Gregg who have been so much company and such a source of laughter over the past two summers.  I even miss all the new students even though I didn't get to know many of them very well. I miss all the tension, angst, and revelation that comes from over-stimulation, over-tiredness, over-eating and the giddy silliness that follows.

I miss Kim and Kerry who have become my confidants and closer friends than I ever expected would happen when we met last year in our first workshop together. We are an unlikely trio, Kim finding her native voice which is soft, gentle and seems to be connected to mother earth herself.  Kerry, who is strong, enduring and whose poetry speaks to me like a Norman Rockwell painting. And me, trying to bridge the gap between worlds and not only write about the hard, unhappy, violent things in life.

I miss the instructors who were so gracious and so willing to listen, help and suggest places to go deeper, ways to see the image more clearly or just break out and write without restraints.  But I must confess, of all these things, I think I really, really miss the brownies.

Updated Website

Thanks to all of you that have commented and responded to poems and various postings that I have been putting up for the past year.  They have helped me so much to redefine and reorganize my thoughts as to where my poetry is, where I want it to go and how to get it there.

I won't be posting poetry on my blog as I begin the looming task of rewrites, reorganization and writing new poems for my thesis.  I need a rough draft ready by January and the poems I am working on look nothing like what I was posting in first drafts here for feedback and other input from all of my fellow writers and friends out here in internet land.

Thanks again for all your input, comments and encouragement!

I will however be posting about my poetry and my progress and/or the ensuing thesis writing nervous breakdown. Either way, I hope it will be interesting or at least mildly entertaining.

Invisible

I disappear a little every day. I fade into the background as if my importance has diminished. My face begins to tell my history through crow’s feet and sagging eyelids. I am now a woman with curves, ridges and my grandmother’s breasts. I am no longer twiggy-like with bones protruding and progesterone filled skin that rebounds and presents itself wrinkle-less and porcelain smooth. I feel that I have finally grown into myself. I have reached an age of understanding. But even as I feel this sense of settling in; this sense of finally living in the present, I find that my age has set me apart. And, suddenly, I am fighting against a tide of irrelevance.

I remember in my twenties walking like I owned the street. I strutted my skinny ass around in miniskirts, braless halter-tops and spiked heels. I thought I knew where I was going, what I wanted. If you didn’t like anything I did, said or wore, who cared? Certainly not me. But I am weighed down by gravity now. I have seen many things, lost many things and it shows on my face, in my eyes. My gait seems to show weakness, tiredness, or surrender. They think I have become vulnerable. Make no mistake this is not what you are seeing. Life has taught me resilience, steadfastness, and the redemption of survival. I stand strong because of the battles waged, not always won, but always a battle endured. Each limp with my cane is a survivor’s limp. It doesn’t speak of the loss, it speaks of the endurance that gets me up, out of bed, and on my feet everyday.

I have reached the age beyond which I am identified by my relationships. I am no longer Mill’s daughter, plagued by family line expectations that have nothing to do with who I am. I am no longer Jim’s stepdaughter, always trying to find the thing that will bind us. Nor am I Eddie, Nicky, Jimmy, or Michael’s sister, who thought that loyalty and trust trumped anything else in our lives. I have moved beyond the responsibilities of Tara’s mother. I have given her the tools to move forward with her own assurance and wisdom and she has created her own life with her children. I am relinquished of those duties, worries, and daily responses to her life. I don’t have the burden of problem solving and worries like when they were younger and lived with me and I stood in the hallway listening to them cry themselves to sleep because of the nasty divorce that tossed them back and forth like weightless paper.

I have just begun to get my bearings in this world. I have moved out of the circle of responsibility by relation and into the idea that I can accomplish what I had set out to do. I now have the time to search out what I have tucked away for later, for another time, for when I grew older. That time is finally here. I rummage through dusty shelves stacked with boxes of poems, stories, and journals where I recorded everything that I could not say. I find pieces of me nestled inside notes and sentences jotted down so long ago I don’t even remember writing them. They are speaking faintly like a small, dry, and withered voice. But my words are coming alive for me again. And I realize it is me who has been stuffed into these boxes. I have been hidden away within lines of unspoken stories and left over remnants of when I danced on the edge of knives without fear.

I am not only this age, weight, height, bra size or hair color. I have moved beyond myself. The world sees grandchildren, menopause, and now a limping woman with a cane. My skin and sinew turns translucent, bone becomes shadow, and I become a little more invisible in the day-to-day dealings in my life. Even though I am only now coming alive in my own life. I feel the pressure to dye my hair, get botox injections, order Spanx so my curves can be reduced and concealed. We are a society of bone thin androgyny and wrinkle free faces. And I feel the pull to hide my age, pretend I am not who I am. I am embarrassed by the lines suddenly appearing on my face and apologetic about the use of the cane, as if these things define who I have become. As if my weight, eyesight, or failing left leg has anything to do with what I have accomplished or have yet to accomplish. I have saved so much until now. There is so much tucked away in those boxes and notebooks that still needs to be said.

I refuse to be invisible. I refuse to step aside, give up my place; move along. I have waited for the bad marriages to end. I have waited for parents to pass on so that the patterns and boundaries could change. I looked forward to this time of my own to take the words buried within me and toss them like scrabble tiles until they cluster together into sentences that tell how, why, and where. I have waited for it all to make some kind of sense so that I could retell it. Pass it on. Give it away. I have things I want to say. Need to say. Stories to tell that make me laugh, cry, and get angry. Stories that punctuate who I have become.

I will not walk slowly away and accept that my time is up with my hands filled with regret and lost opportunities spilling out in a trail behind me as I exit quietly and assume my expected role of transparency. I will fight for my voice as I always have. This cane, these crows’ feet, these bugling breasts and hips are badges I have earned from the battles I have won and lost. I have survived in spite of it. And that’s what matters. The survival, not the wounds. I have decided that I will wear these badges proudly. I will stand in my relevance as a survivor and simply refuse to be invisible.

This Year's Resolution

I always seem to get the blues after the holidays; not to be confused with the melancholy I get right before the holidays; or the stress I feel during the holidays. Let's face it, as magical and great as they can be, the holidays really take an emotional toll on everyone. I start the decline at Thanksgiving when I begin to miss my mom. Then I remember all the people I have lost, both living and dead. The list just seems to get longer every year. I begin to ride a roller coaster that takes me from excitement to sadness and back again. By the time January and the cold weather creeps in, I just want to huddle on my couch with a warm fire, a stack of books and a pile of movies.

New Year's eve only emphasizes the melancholy. And, every news show, local program, and video channel runs down the obligatory list of people lost that year, complete with every crumb of sensationalism they can muster. It doesn't help. Even though we are saying goodbye to the old, we are so caught up in the loss that midnight seems sad and filled with the voices and memories of those that are no longer with us, we forget to say hello to the new. I think we are so bombarded by the idea of the loss itself that we forget to hang onto the positive experiences we had with those lost through the years. The news sprawls death and murder across the screen and that's the only part of the story we see. We are inundated with the horror or the sadness or the deliberate self destruction of individuals. But the stories never go any further. We don't see the aftermath, the ongoing lives of the people once attached to the lost ones.

I was recently told that I was a "survivor": of my childhood, of a bad first marriage; of years of struggling without a strong foundational footing to help guide me through my adulthood. I have to admit when I heard this, it took a bit for the meaning to really sink in; even though I kept saying that I felt as though I was walking through quicksand. One minute I was sinking and the next, slipping. But I was always stuck more or less in the same emotional place. And, then it hit me: the difference between knowing you survived something and understanding that you are a survivor was as overwhelming as staring up at the night sky and knowing you are one of those blinking lights, but you can't find yourself anymore. It was like I had been merged with the collective and was totally lost to myself.

So this is my new year's resolution: I will see myself as a survivor. I will not see myself as a product of my mother, my father, grandmother, brothers, cousins, child, grandchildren, or husband. I will see those relationships as a peripheral part of me. Who I was. Who I am becoming. Who I want to be. But I will not define myself based on my relationship with any of them. I will learn to gather up my strength, my essence, my spirit and nurture my life so it can be its own light source. When I look up into that same sky, I will see myself among those throngs of shimmering stars and find myself to be a strong, capable and effective survivor.