Last May I drove my partner and children up to the Cascades to stay in a little Airbnb condo alongside the Nooksack River. We’d left Olympia late; my fibromyalgia had flared up, and it was my first time home since leaving in April to care for my mother in a specialty hospital in Portland. My partner and I had recently reunited after a painful separation, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go at all. But we went, and thus by nightfall were still driving on rural highways threaded through mountains in the dark.
An owl broke the treeline and hurled itself across the windshield. I hit the brakes and clapped my hands over my eyes, sucking in my breath. Having made only the barest audible feather contact, the owl vaulted into the mountainside and vanished. We came to a full stop and sat stunned in the middle of the road, headlights tunneling steady into darkness.
In August came the raven, who visited not only the tree immediately outside my bedroom window, but the tree in the backyard as well. It made droplet noises at me as I watered the roses. Inbetween raven visitations, my partner dreamed about a black dog.
In February my mother’s colon randomly twisted; she went into septic shock and cardiac arrest in my bathroom. May, during our separation, my partner was hit by a car. July came my bad pap exam, August the unsuccessful LEEP, September the nervous overniceness of the nurse and doctor as it sank in that the cervical abnormalities were not an early or easy fix. Two kinds of carcinoma, extensive abnormalities, positive margins, biopsy to confirm malignancy. Radical hysterectomy, chemo, radiation. A few days prior my stepmother informed me that she had stage 3 colon cancer, with no preceding symptoms.
For months, I sat with my mother as she lay in a semi-concious state between living and dying. I watched her oscillate between the two, the minutest of her expressions and movements articulating a path that led to possible recovery, or impending death. Her eyes widened when she saw me: life. Her eyes closed when I showed her a picture of herself with her grandchild, laughing: death.
I did not then and do not now understand what happened to the person who was my mother. I watched her die; her last choked breath; it was my hands bearing bone down against her motionless heart. I saw her later return to something like life, and die and die and die again. And then one day she walked onto a plane and flew home, and I can’t explain that either.
I have come to clearly understand that I don’t know anything, except for some things that can’t be adequately evoked in words. I sat beside her dying and held her hand, and as I sat my own dying divided and multiplied, divided and multiplied, blooming in me.
I asked my therapist what the fuck is going on, and she said to look inside myself and ask. And I did, and what I saw was a tree, an enormous tree as tall and wide as the universe. That’s what’s going on, she said. The answer is the tree.
What the fuck, with all this death? The tree of life, that’s what. Natural, normal, unavoidable. Attended by all the wisdom and oneness of the cosmos. Death is what makes life possible.
And facing all this death is its own kind of dying.
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.”
For several years I have known- in the way I that I know whom I love or how to move my hip in response to a bass note- that I am dying. I wasn’t sure if it was metaphorical; I’m still not. Maybe the oscillations my mother made between living and dying are the same we all make, everyday a microscopic birth, a microscopic death, both living and dying ultimately composing us, the way a tree gathers and integrates nutrients from the dead throughout its lifted limbs.
As my step mother begins chemo, I wonder which way her body will align; if, once poisoned, she will be cellularly distributed more towards dying than living. She will not talk of death, nor cancer. She walks routinely by the river I grew up alongside.
I think of death and cancer often. Cancer is a part of me, a longing, a regret, a mistake once made that cannot be unmade. It is easy to see my own failings in. I don’t believe that I can sift through the living in me and the dying in me and choose to embrace only the living. I am rooted with both, embody both, love both. I will submit myself to knives and dreamless sleep, to poison and mutilation, to sickness and pain in order to live longer. Especially for my children. But not to “beat” death, to “beat” cancer. Just to dance longer, and see what happens.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
The first thing that I wanted to write about after my baby was born was, predictably, the birth. I never imagined that I would write, on thanksgiving of all days, from a seaside island apartment in Georgia, nearly five months after the event– the cleaving, the bloodied imparting, the tearing asunder and breath shocked abruption of beings– about grief.
Perhaps it is less about grief and more about murder. Immolation. The worlds I lost, the selves I killed. Assumptions violently shed. On bad days still I see my body bathed in blood. Only the name I gave myself and the burden of accumulated losses cloaking what is– must be– the illusion of self. Kill it. And again. And again. Irrevocable losses- strip them of meaning, if not potency. Crush. Mine. Remake. Destroy.
The ocean is a mirror for the vast tumult of loss inside my own wrecked heart. Despair sweeps, changes diapers, microwaves tv dinners, feeds itself. I am neatly kept, I keep neatly. I have lost all my sharp edges, collapsed into wobbly flesh and bruised shadow. Suddenly I am old, wearing every pinch and frown. I look to the sea. Seemingly it holds everything. I will too, I resolve.
Skinned thinner than tendon, tighter than my breath. Time framed in contractions, slicing spasms of pain. I pick up my feet. Slip deep into mindless movement. Watch a strip of light curve slowly across the wall. I will too. Stretch. Breathe. Arc. Die.
I focus on the curve of each line, the arc and bleed of ink. Over and over, the same word. Prayer comes to me uninvited- hallowed be thy name. On earth as it is in heaven. With both hands I lifted him from the water black with shit and blood. I cracked open with the miracle of him. I whispered his name over and over in the dark. Incantation. Invocation. This one lived. His heart beats. Mine, still, too.
It’s 3:31 am. I just vomited up everything in my stomach, most of which was the lemon ginger water that I drink on the constant to prevent vomiting up everything in my stomach. I could not eat yesterday, nor sleep; I can’t sleep tonight. I’m trembling from the exertion of puking.
I can feel the baby moving. It’s early– I shouldn’t be feeling it– but I’m feeling it. Sometimes I wonder if this pregnancy is farther along than I think because Wyrm never died. In the emergency room, after I found out that I was pregnant again, I struggled to remind myself that this wasn’t Wyrm back, this wasn’t Wyrm. I curled up in the miserable gowns on the thin sheets over the cold ass cracked up plastic of the hospital bed and rocked myself and cried. This isn’t Wyrm, it isn’t Wyrm.
I know it isn’t Wyrm because Wyrm’s body was in my freezer for nearly two months. Now he has been cremated and is in an urn in my living room. C. and I were going to release his body to the Pacific Ocean; we were going to do a lot of things. We do not speak now. I puke, he fucks random people. We’ve gone our separate ways. How quickly everything we hoped for or had counted on so absolutely dissolves.
Sometimes I still have suicidal thoughts. Then I remember that really, I already died. I died and went to hell and came back and died and went to hell and came back and now there isn’t flesh anymore, there isn’t bone, there is only negative space. Burned clean of even the capacity to want. I may be able to write again, now. There is room.
This baby does not have a name. I cannot hear it’s name. The cranial sacral therapist told me that she talked to the spirit of my baby, the last time she was wiggling my ears and poking my neck on her pretty draped table. She said that the baby is the same spirit, come back through all the miscarriages. A spirit that I have known and loved in previous lives, as cousins, best friends, lovers, spouses. This spirit is so fucking happy to be with me again in a new way, she said, sans the expletive. They are choosing to come now because I need them, because I have died and gone to hell and died and gone to hell and now that there is nothing left but death in me, this spirit has come to fill me with new life.
She cried while she told me. I couldn’t cry, because there was still more death in me than the capacity for life. I don’t know what I think. She said that the animal I need pay attention to now is the blue jay. That whatever I needed the armadillo for, or the frog, had been resolved. We have strange conversations. Last time I was there while she was apparently talking to my baby’s spirit I saw all these asses everywhere, all over the ceiling, in my head; I saw mud fat with standing water, a red, red river sensuous with silt– the river I often dream of, a river I once fucked my boyfriend in when I was 15. (Which got real awkward, when some fisherman boated by.) I felt very uncomfortable having my ears wiggled while I saw asses everywhere. Especially when I found out that she had been talking to my baby. Did they see the asses, too?
She said my river was her blue jay. (I didn’t mention the asses.) That the question was one of courage, of autonomy. Do I sit in the mud? Or do I brave the sensuous seductions of the river, swoop in and just fucking take what I need, without shame the way the blue jay does? She said that I was making a very important decision, and that I need pay attention to the blue jay.
I don’t know what important decisions I am making. Frankly, life feels so unequivocally overwhelming that most of the decisions that I make are immediate, minute things, such as, should I puke before I shit– which end goes over the toilet first? Should I eat cereal before I brush my teeth and puke? Should I take my prenatal vitamin with breakfast or lunch; should I puke generic organic raisin bran or an egg salad sandwich? Most of my decisions right now are about my ass or my mouth, plus all the many yards of beleaguered, pregnancy-shocked gut between. They don’t seem particularly imperative. Egg salad puke or raisin bran puke? Spirit of the blue jay! Egg salad, goddamnit, now, without shame!
Spirit of the blue jay. When she said blue jay, I said, but they are so mean. Not mean, she said, they do what they need to do without shame. Like a pregnant person eats a whole pizza. (I have not eaten a whole pizza. But I have thrown up half a calzone.)
C. once said that I am more venomous than an adder. I don’t know how much I need blue jay encouragement. I do know that over the last many weeks, I have felt things that I am not used to feeling, like profound loneliness, a deep fear of being alone. Like longing to be touched by another human being. Like needing, actual needing, human presence and contact. Needing a hug.
Usually when people say, do you need a hug?, my secret inner thought is– ugh, why the hell would I want you to touch me? I’m not huggy feely. I don’t get how pressure and other people’s bodies can feel soothing. Or I didn’t, until now.
Sometimes I am so scared that I want to be picked up and cradled, I want to be rocked. I rock myself. Sometimes I ask someone to just sit near me, or lay their hand on my back, although I do not have many people around to ask. Sometimes I just imagine in it in my head, the comfort of another person’s palm laid warmly across my spine.
I try to breathe long and slow through these times, when I feel so small and wretched, so terrified and ill that I don’t know how the hell I am ever going to make it through this. I tell my baby, this is loneliness, this is sadness, it hurts, doesn’t it? But we are okay, we get through. We’ll just breathe real slow and get through this. Even when there is no one to hold you, to carry you, time will carry you through.
I learned that time carries when I was locked up for months as a teen in a place where we were “only allowed to blink and breathe without staff permission.” I have become very skilled at the simple arts of blinking and breathing. Of waiting without hope, without thought.
At least until the bran cereal decides which end it will make its arduous exit from.
I think I made my blue jay decision this morning. I ended all possibility of friendship or family with C. I cried all day. I wanted to run to him, to wrap myself around him, to place his palm on my belly, on my spine. I wanted him to feel my pulse, my tears, to rock me, to love me, to feel the baby move. To recant, to reclaim. I wanted things to go back to the way they never were, when I trusted him and we brought each other joy.
Instead I entered the river, unsure if I would swim or drown. The baby moves in me; the surface of the water is warm but the depths are cool, almost cold. Sediment and water moccasins ribbon around me. We are far south enough for gators to be a concern. Mud squelches between my toes, slippering my feet. I wade towards center. I look for the white horse I dreamed of once, the dead one. I wonder if the stress will kill this baby, too.
This isn’t Wyrm. It isn’t Wyrm. I will blink and breathe and fucking swim.
I don’t know how to break a silence this long with grace.
In short: I’m nearly three months pregnant. I spent some time in the psychiatric ward of the public hospital. My relationship ended abruptly and painfully. Most days I am too sick to leave my apartment. I’m in the process of clearing up my incomplete and returning to school in January. I should graduate with my second degree by next summer, before the baby is born. And hopefully, sometime in the next year, I am moving on from the state of Washington.
In the hospital they said that I was in shock. Shock is a fairly accurate description. Each day I shed a little more of the assumptions of possibility, stability, and availability that I wasn’t aware I’d been holding to. My life feels bottomless. I have no idea what to anticipate or hope for, what to hold to. I live literally moment to moment, day to day. My life feels small and womb-like, yet surrounded by a limitless cavern of uncertainty.
I have never before experienced the profound discomfort and immense effort entailed in literally just sitting with sadness, hope, and fear.
I’m not roving from shelter to shelter anymore, not running for the safety and security of my family, not fending off bigots or bears, not fighting the system for SSI, not trying to be a “real” writer, not “saving” anyone, not exhaustively researching anything, not wildly in love or craven in heartbreak, not building family or community, not expecting or wanting from anyone, not trying to make a living doing anything, just living– not even reading, not even writing, just living. Breathing moment to moment, gestating new life, sitting with some of the hardest and heaviest feelings I have ever experienced.
I can find no way to say this with grace: my heart is broken with the vast and sickening injustices of the prison industrial complex, as well as the systems of state structured bigotry that feeds it. That I sit with, moment to moment, day to day. How that relates to the baby coming to be in me, the heartache, the uncertainty, and even the hospital stay is a story so complex and contradictory that it exceeds my current capacity to relate.
In the meantime, prenatals and puking, WIC checks and waiting, headaches and heartaches and bowels that have also come to a standstill. I hold everything in my heart but hope.
“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” -T.S. Eliot
I will speak directly to you today, to your valves and ventricles, to your canted chambers and controlled floods, to the infusions of charge and spark that animate your determined pursuit of nurturance. Thank you for how you’ve carried me, and how you’ve enabled me to carry you. You have guided me through immense uncertainties. I do not know how you have not seized or ruptured; I cannot fathom how you hold so much. I bow to your strength and relentlessness; I bow to the wisdom and language of your pulse. Thank you so much.
Such nightmares, this morning. Your hurt in me, I can barely breathe through you; I can barely keep up. You ache; I ache; we ache. It is profoundly uncomfortable to sit still with you, to sit still, to breathe stillness in.
The stories of my life and of my nightmares are telling me today that you are worthless, a wounded bruise of meat available for quick and cheap consumption. You feel the threat of those stories; you are pumping overtime to bail the sinking vessel. I will not let us sink beneath the surface of those family fables. Let us imagine unforeseen lightness and float through this. Let us remember that today, there is no need to fight or flail. Rest.
Rest. No harm is being brought to you, no capacity taken. Today I vow that I will honor rather than harm you. These things did happen, but they did not happen today. Rest.
We will be years or lifetimes in healing towards each other; I will stay that course. I heard your nightmares this morning. I heard your nightmares and your mother’s voice. I heard your fears of use, discard, and shame. I heard your mother’s voice.
I will be honest. I don’t know what to say to you. I wish that I could scoop you up and hold you, to carry you in my hoodie to rest from the pull of want and gravity. You do not have to open and accept the imposition of unwanted contact so that I may eat or have shelter today. You do not have to tear and bleed and ache today, as you contort and stretch to hold bitter and unwanted mass for the safety of faked desire over forcible rape. There is no hustle for survival today.
It is safe to feel and open, to hold and squeeze. It is safe to accept and slick. It is safe to want.
It is safe to want nothing, to close, to merely be, a tight and self-contained bud, untouched.
I will breathe us through the fear of shame and the fear of force. Today we are safe. We are not usable, disposable. We are not triangulated and forced to be pretty, tight, and available for survival. We have power, electricity, worth. I will hold and carry you. I will guard and keep you. I will honor you. I will not blame, cut, “deodorize”, or revile you for the actions of others. You did not invite force. True force is not invited. We survived force and unwanted utilization. Today we are safe and off the clock, off the hook. I heard your nightmare and your mother’s voice, and they are over now. We are moving through layers of healing. Rest. Rest. Love can be safe.
I am living primarily off of chocolate coconut Luna bars and smoking in the car again– such are my peculiar signs of impending break. I wake soaked in sweat– I wake hearing the anger and disgust in his voice, again, the specific words he said, although now weeks have passed– my heart cringes and crawls like an experimental lab rat, fearing the shock it knows will come and is helpless to prevent. Nightmares bring family and home, Christmas and slaughter, my grandmother’s corpse and bears in the bedroom. Nothing feels heavier, more pathetic and insoluble than the weight and dampness, the stink and wind of the sheets tangled around my neck and thighs. I wake bewildered and terrified, tail tucked, in tail spin. Such are the manifestations of home, family, love. I understand nothing. I yield to cover and the repetition of breath. I count hours, empty pillows, the things I know. I study the blinded streetlight bending round the metal bed frame; I try to remember what I’ve forgotten. I make bed and home in wretchedness, bewilderment, sheeted and bound in the intimacy of my own peculiar breaking.
All night I wrestle, I wind. These ribbons mean danger. Turn up the femme, a fierce and unyielding light. A thin line between birth and death. Listen for the crack. Relief in the determination that I never have to be okay again. And because I don’t have to be, I will. This is the blood-boil bewilderment before the fever breaks. I can lose a few brain cells, a few dreams, a lover. Sweat out the impurity of want and certainty. At least I sleep on the groundfloor, now. At least I can sometimes sleep.
Laugh in the morning. This is what healing looks like. A sloughing of skin and want, a lamp left on through the night. We made it through again, we slipped the trap, the shot guns, the hounds; the plywood held against the bear, the kitchen knives stay sheathed in sheets. This really happened. I will tell you, I have to tell you. Over and over and until the terror is limited to words. We lived in hiding in a shed on a mountain. We filled bags with rocks. I lay with knives, baseball bats, a hatchet. Every night the bear came. A real bear that I never saw, only heard, measured paw prints and claw marks, counted tufts of fur. I couldn’t believe it myself, shock paralleled with fear and a fierceness that I will never be able to stick words to. I cannot love without ferocity now– I love like a bear now, a mother bear, guarding. Worry billowing wider than want. I didn’t sleep so that they could. I couldn’t sleep so that they could. I age slipped to a helpless want of comfort that I never really had– 28 years old, I hugged a stuffed fox through the night to hold myself, with knives and bats nearby. More than I have hungered for anything, I wanted to eat that bear’s fucking heart. I wanted to warm my fish-cold feet in his disambiguated flesh.
My body can’t believe that it ended. But it did. It did. From garage to shed to car to motel to collective to shelter to shelter to shelter to shelter. Home is the hardest of four letter words. It’s over now– when I remember I sing this to my heart, a lullaby. Hold my ribs in my palms and remember– it’s nearly over now.
It will be truly over next month. We will pass through from homeless to homed. Pray that it sticks. Pray that never again will we plummet. It is time to heal now. I am ready to heal now. I have been healing, slow spiral to the deeper fixing terror of it. I can handle that now. I will handle it now. Tell the snow, the sheets, the plywood, the rats: I can sustain unspeakable loss. Frost creeps in. Femme flares out. Sweat and steam and all the mud and suck of thaw. My bed is the bewilderment of spring, sharp pungent shoots sprung from rot and loss. I broke into parts to survive. Now the most wounded of us is healing the hardest. Parting the earth with root and hunger. We will risk to believe that the sun will come again, that grief will pass on the inevitability of breath and time. That we can push and pulse and slip past stone, against gravity, part layers of transfigured history– from dust to dust– to welcome heat and light and simply stun, stun, all those little parts of us that didn’t know we could turn waste to breath, that from the pitch dark and deepest pulse of burial we could flare the most beauteous and blinding of greens.
76 hours from now, I will be in the place where this bullshit started, if bullshit ever starts in any one place. Atlanta. My mind says, time to writhe and thrive, to break into a fury of potentials. My body insists that returning to Atlanta means that I will die. My fool face splashed all over the news, even middle school friends saw me. His fist, my throat, the stairs, the rape. Hunger and mold and cold and rupture. Atlanta is generations of personal and familal history wounded from the roots. Holding tenaciously in the piedmont, the foothills of the mountains, to the south the flatlands, the sunk and trembling lands, dark alligator waters, shotguns, sharks; to the north the bear, the shed. A terrain of violence, impending. Now is the time to part layers of transfigured history– from dust to dust, mold to glitter; from what was to what may be. I’m bringing my fucking heels, a sharp tongue, a short skirt. I’m coming.
I am stumbling to get words out. Profound and enlivening shifts are occurring with the same old nightmares, body aches, anxieties, and sleeplessness cycling through the background. Grief is still riding me, hard. My dreams are full of bears and bodies. My libido has tanked again.
And yet– I feel that I’ve found a true, legitimate, and plausible/possible calling– one that I feel will integrate fairly easily into the work that I already do, and working for and with people to whom I, in my deepest and most intimate roots, resonate with and do not feel alien to, after a life in which I, almost without exception, have felt alien. It feels like going home. It feels like falling in love. I’m enlivened and burning with ideas. More on that later.
I’m writing, of all things, a trilogy of Greek plays. I have a reading next month, am likely returning to the Lambda retreat this year, and am easing myself back into the writing world. I have a real and plausible opportunity to finish Nuthouse Birthdays this year. I have a chapbook of poems to edit and hopefully publish. My writing has changed in ways both startling and fucking exciting.
After years of what constitutes almost unspeakable personal devastation, I feel like life is starting again. I’m getting back into activism. In three months, I will no longer be legally homeless, and the level of governmental control and interference in my life will lessen. I am connected with my body in ways I never believed possible. I have family and community.
And seriously, I have the fiercest femmey-est fucking bedroom ever. Even with the sweats, with bears hunting my brain through long hours of the night, it is hard not to feel kinda fucking fabulous, what with all the gold string lights and flocked fleur-de-lis.
So. A grand and joyous (and belated) welcome to 2014. Let’s see what we can make happen.