Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems. From where I stand.


Leave a comment

Shape-Shifting

I do not bring back from a journey quite the same self that I took.

— W. Somerset Maugham

 

We are taught to believe

in the “to” and the “from”-ness of traveling —

fixed places in space and time

lines on a map

comfortingly measurable

embarked upon by some predictable

knowable definable “self”

 

But, oh…this journey of mine

of blood and bone

of flesh and spirit

of mind and mystery —

this journey is a spiral dance

 

I turn: a Selkie’s pelt for skin

I turn: an owl’s feathers for hair

I turn: darkness for a face

and my teeth in a grin of moon-change

I turn and turn and turn:

wind for a name

tides for a heart

tall pines to hold sinew to muscle of clouds

 

Not the how —

only the what and the why,

not the where or the when

or the “I”

that isn’t

 

This journey of mine

will bring no self home

changed or unchanged

because the destination

is no horizon


Leave a comment

Strawberry Moon

The punchline

{Who cooks for you? Who? Who cooks for you?}

nearly

escaped

me.

——

In my one hand,

the map to a dream —

my heart a fluttering sparrow

as my boots thumped the wild

mountain road at its border,

tangled with grass and mud

and blackberry vines.

The songs of warblers in the air,

and crowsfoot

garlanding the west slope

under patiently watching pines.

 

We were talking and not talking

in waves as we drifted

along the western boundary.

He swooped momentarily out of view

reappearing a moment later,

extending a gift from his sudden dive:

a striped feather,

almost bulbous at the shaft

and narrowing to its ragged tip.

 

“This is for you,” he told me.

“Hawk. No…turkey,”

he said, brow furrowed.

“I always confuse them.”

But as it crossed my empty palm,

the feather whispered:

 

{barred owl}

 

The pines sighed in the breeze.

Strangely shaken, I thanked him

and tucked his gift tenderly

into the nest of my backpack.

 

I retrieved the map from the pocket

I’d folded it into, a wrinkled square.

It felt strangely warm in my hand

after the feather.

I let my fingers trace its lines,

feeling the leathery stirring

of bat wings from a shaman’s dream

deep in my chest.

 

{Something I must do —

something to gather,

another to release —

to redraw this map

and claim my Home.}

 

Later, back in my room,

I searched for confirmation

from Turkey, from Hawk.

But the finding…the finding:

the wrong territory,

an unlikely answer, improbable but

unmistakable:

Barred Owl.

 

Across the thinning veil

of dreamstime and magic,

Bat lazily woke to scold me,

opening only one eye

and yawning his impatience:

 

{Why would you think

the feather didn’t know? 

Child: Leave behind

this doubting mind of yours.

Shed this foreign skin.

Follow the feather home

to your heart.}

 

Light pierced a crack in the curtains

and lit the map, lying on my bed,

its creases carefully smoothed flat,

the feather lying across it:

a Strawberry Moon,

full and bright and ripe

with possibility.

 

A ceremony was circling.

I twined my fingers

with the moon’s around the feather

and began.

——

And the joke

{my heart did not know

to be hungry

for this land}

is

on

me.

 


Leave a comment

Esther Be Gather, Indianapolis – Part 2: The Talk

In “Esther Be Gather, Indianapolis – Part 1: The Poem,” I provide context for the talk that appears below, as well as the poem to which it refers. I separately posted the emotional energy of the poem from the intellectualized content of the talk below, partly to give the poem its own space, where the intensity of its story could be experienced without the buffering offered by its intellectual explication. I wanted the reader to sit with the emotional impact for a moment, without heading into the relative “safety” we construct for ourselves by detaching from our emotions, objectifying the causes, and picking them apart under the sanitized glare of analysis and theory.

The poem focuses on only one of the events that — unbeknownst to me, for much of my life — shaped how I relate to the world and my place in it. The topic of molestation is a difficult one. But, for far too many women — and men — in the world, so is living with the shame of the experience. I’m fortunate. My family didn’t try to hide the event from me; in fact, we talked openly about it. Still, its effects ripple through my life in ways I haven’t always recognized or clearly understood. It wasn’t until I wrote the poem and stood in front of an audience to talk about it that connections to some of the beliefs I have about myself and some of the choices I’ve made in my life began to cohere for me. Many of my wounds have healed, scarred over. But even scars can pinch and pull when we stretch them.

I preserved the conversational style of my talk, which I delivered from a very brief set of notes. This is a recreation, based on those few scratches, so I might be missing one or two comments as well as what I pulled in from other women’s talks. I purposely left out my notes on the creation of the poem and the narrative.

——

The Talk: Body, Memory, and Epiphany

As you learned during the performance of my poem, “The Physics of Epiphany (The Incident),” I was molested by neighborhood boys when I was three years old.

You might be thinking: She was only three. What could she possibly remember? The past should be left in the past.

Ah, but there’s the rub: The past doesn’t stay in the past, no matter how hard we try to deny it, lock it up, walk away from it. We — all of us — remember more than we think we do about the events in our lives. You see, memory isn’t a function of the mind alone. Recent research shows us that memories are created and stored by every cell in our bodies. Remembering past experiences, in fact, often happens first in the body, through the senses, and the mind fills in the story, or the intellectualized “facts,” of the situation for us.

Let’s try something, using a positive memory:

Close your eyes for a moment and take a few deep breaths to clear your mind. Now, think about a time when you were really happy — or, at least, content. Just stay there for a moment.

If you can, locate where you feel that happy or contented feeling in your body. Is it your chest? Your stomach? Your arms? Your hands? What does it physically feel like? Warmth? Tingling? Something else?

Now, focus on each of your senses. If you can, identify the sense that most connects you with that memory. Was it a smell — newly-mowed grass or the smell of bread in the oven or a loved-one’s scent, perhaps? Or something more visual, like a color or the way the light shimmered on leaves? Maybe it was a sound — birds, a song on the radio, a voice. It could even be the taste of a meal or the sensation of a breeze or the sun on your face, connecting you with touch.

(Open your eyes.)

When we spontaneously remember something, it’s not our minds that take us back; it’s our senses, our bodies. In fact:

The folks at Epona Equestrian Services in Arizona, where horses are used as therapeutic partners in the healing process, found that the gentle rocking motion their clients experience when riding a horse often dislodges memories of rape, incest, and other forms of sexual abuse or assault.

Not that long ago, a friend of mine got onto an elevator, followed by a man — a complete stranger — who happened to be wearing the same cologne as one who’d sexually assaulted her years before. She bolted from the elevator, quivering and sickened with the very same terror she experienced during the original attack.

And me? How could being molested at age three possibly affect me? I honestly didn’t think I had anything more than an intellectual memory of the event until rehearsing “Epiphany” to perform for you today. As I walked myself through my description of “the incident,” another incident from my recent past suddenly struck me. For over a year, I practiced a martial art called aikido. The men and women at the dojo where I trained were some of the most generous, kind, and gentle people I’ve ever met — they were like otters at play, falling, rolling, laughing. We all took care of and with one another, which is one of the main principles of aikido. But every time one of those kind, gentle-hearted men grabbed my wrist to practice a hold, I went stiff as a board. They used to joke with me: “Loosen up! Relax!” and I’d respond — still tight and starting to grow inexplicably angry — “I am relaxed!”

Without my understanding it at the time, they were holding my wrists. Making me feel trapped. Like those boys who held me hostage through the fence that day.

Epiphany.

What each of these examples illustrates is that repressed memories can ambush us. We have no control over where or when they’ll trigger. And we never know with what intensity they’ll surface. That’s the problem with trying to leave the past in the past. It doesn’t stay put. If you’re going to heal it, release it, be free of it, you have to drag it out into the light and deal with it. If you don’t, if you try to deny its impact on you, it could simply quietly prick at your attention as that nagging, vaguely disturbing distortion of the familiar — but it could also escalate into an emotionally violent freight train when the memory becomes too urgent to ignore.

Decades after being molested as a small child, and largely as the result of writing and rehearsing the poem, I’m looking anew at behaviors and feelings that have often perplexed me. Although I’d long ago dismissed the incident as something I was “over,” something requiring no attention, I’m beginning to wonder just how deeply and in what forms its effects are hidden.

I’ve been fortunate to work with some talented therapists over the years, who have guided me through talk therapy. Not long ago, a wonderful therapist led me through an EMDR session — Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which leverages physical eye movements similar to REM (or to the eye movements we unconsciously make when consciously trying to access a memory) to help me recall and re-process another, unrelated traumatic event from my childhood. I’ve also developed skills on my own, like meditation and yoga, to help me integrate what I learn about myself when I poke around in the shadows of my memory. Is the healing difficult? Yes. Painful? Sometimes, yes. But it’s the path to freedom, and I’m happy to walk it.

If I were going to leave you with anything, it would be this: There is help out there. Those of us who are haunted by some buried or half-remembered trauma can reclaim our power. With the help and guidance of a trained professional and support from the people we love, we can break the grip of what holds us hostage through the fences our minds erect. Approaches like EMDR can accelerate the recovery and processing of traumatic memories in a safe and controlled environment so we aren’t ambushed by horrifying responses to hidden emotional triggers. Through tools like meditation we can learn to accept our feelings, integrate the work we do in therapy, and make peace with the past instead of trying to stuff away in a closet from which it will surely escape: as outbursts, meltdowns, even physical disease.

We need to trust our bodies’ signals, overcome our fear and shame, and ask for the help and resources we need to heal ourselves of past hurts. Wounds never go away completely. We can’t un-know what we know. But we can close that gaping wound and let it scar over. And learn to live with the scars in a way that’s less frightening, less limiting, more joyful. It’s possible.

It’s not easy. It requires courage and determination. And it will take time. But I can tell you that, for me, freeing myself of the grip of the past has most definitely been worth the work.


3 Comments

Esther Be Gather, Indianapolis – Part 1: The Poem

“I will tell you something about stories,

[he said]

They aren’t just entertainment.

Don’t be fooled.

They are all we have, you see,

all we have to fight off

illness and death.

You don’t have anything

if you don’t have the stories.”

— Leslie Marmon Silko, from Ceremony

Back in April, I was honored to accept the invitation to be a Storyteller at the first Esther Be Gather, held here in Indianapolis at the historic Madame Walker Theater. Stacy Sallmen, Esther Be’s founder, has been organizing these events — here in the U.S., Europe, and Africa (to date) — as a means of providing everyday role models for women seeking to escape the damaging (and often dangerous) silence and inaction resulting from feelings shame, fear, and guilt. By gathering women to share their stories with others, Esther Be forges connections through common experience and inspires women to build the courage required to rise up and claim the resources they often refuse — in some cases at the cost of their lives — because of the shame, guilt, and fear associated with traumatic events or circumstances of their lives.

At this first Esther Be Gather, we heard stories from women who had not only survived but rose above such atrocities as rape and incest and abuse, as well as addiction, eating disorders, and pornography. Participants shared their stories in a number of ways: through talks, songs, audience participation. I chose to share mine, with the help of dear friend Kelli B. Schmith, through the medium most natural to me: poetry.

The piece wraps free verse (“The Physics of Epiphany”) around a narrative (“The Incident”). It reflects two experiences of memory: the intellectualized, emotionally stifled one and the spontaneous, emotionally explosive one in response to sensory recall. The poem portrays the violent battle fought between the mind, which seeks to suppress or sanitize traumatic memories to protect us from their impact, and the emotions, which are spontaneously triggered by sensory memory and often burst through the mind’s protective buffering with a range of intensity.

While my own delivery of the performance began with a tone of dismissive denial, racheting up to violent physicality, Kelli read the narrative with the quiet detachment many trauma victims use to tell stories — as though they were describing something that happened to someone else.

In a separate post, I’ll publish the re-creation of my brief talk about the role of the body in creating, recording, and storing memory — and why repressing memories can result in the violent eruptions of “epiphany” that many people suffer when those memories suddenly, often unexpectedly, surface again.

I’m publishing my talk separately, in part, to retrieve a little of the poem’s visceral impact, which it loses in its print form. But I also wanted to make the reader pause in the emotional intensity the poem creates before allowing them to move into the safer, cleaner intellectual space to which we reflexively retreat when faced with difficult feelings.

Because, while our theories and our analyses and our psychologies are fine, “[y]ou don’t have anything / if you don’t have the stories.”


The Poem: “The Physics of Epiphany (The Incident)”

It begins

as a faint shimmer in the distance

a subtle ripple

a vaguely disturbing distortion of the horizon

pricking at your attention.

But it’s still easy to dismiss

so you do.

My memory of the incident itself is vague, incomplete:

I am crying, my hands pulled through the fence and held fast on the other side so I can’t get away. They shush me again and again, intently focused on what they are doing. No one must hear this. It isn’t allowed.

By the next time you glance up,

it’s gathered speed,

gained momentum

 

and it’s heading straight at you.

My panties are pulled down, and through the fence, dirty fingers probe me. I remember nothing of this, specifically; only the tops of their heads as they whisper to one another with stifled laughter.

Your first instinct is to dodge it,

deflect it.

But you’re rooted to the spot

by its inescapable gravity,

the inevitable pull of its mass.

How did I get there? What had they used to lure me? For what had I reached my hands through the fence to grasp, only to be caught in this trap?

I don’t know. I was only three.

Your lungs suck for breath

as the first white-hot cannon ball of truth

slams into your gut

forcing your stomach back into your spine.

What I remember vividly is the sound the back door made as my father burst through it as though shot from a cannon, taking the stairs two at a time, his face twisted with rage.

You feel your body crumple,

curling inward around this thing

you don’t want to know

you don’t want to know

you don’t want to know

And my mother’s voice, high-pitched with terror, as she follows him, “Don’t hurt them! Don’t hurt them! They’re just boys!” her fear echoing forward and backward at once.

Forward and backward at once,

your whole being seems to spin around this new center.

And just when it seems

you can curl no tighter,

that every fiber of your being,

every cell every atom

has been pushed to its limit:

 

the equal and opposite reaction.

Reaction is slowed. The boys are transfixed, forgetting for a moment to release my wrists. I feel my father hit the ground behind me, and the spell is broken as he slams into the fence, a bellowing bull. The boys scatter, wild with terror. I remember one, the visiting friend of the neighbor boy who still had my smell on his fingers, scaling the opposite fence like a mad creature and disappearing down the street.

You implode

scattering what you once believed

was solid and real and firm

and stable – the very core

of your Self –

in all directions.

 

You desperately try

to hold it together

because

no no no NO

NO!

I remember my mother quickly pulling up my panties, hiding my dishonor. My father stands, shaking with impotence, the damage he could never undo settling into the pit of his stomach as I whimper and hide my face in my mother’s neck.

The MESS you’re making!

 

How will you clean this up?

How will you ever tuck this back in?

How will you piece together the splintered fragments

of the mask they all need you to wear –

Something my mother is saying to him about my trembling breaks through the thick, protective skin of my father’s anger, causing him to whirl and twisting his face in the other direction, from rage to naked anguish.

– your family

your friends

your coworkers?

This, too, I remember vividly: My father dropping to his knees, the tears welling, as he takes me tenderly by my tiny shoulders and looks deeply into my eyes, his own eyes desperately begging me to hear him. He’s helpless…shattered…undone.

But you’re helpless…shattered…undone.

There’s no going back from here.

No pretending your life

will ever be the same again.

Can ever be the same.

He says it so softly, so fiercely.

And then you feel it:

 

the peace

the acceptance

the expansiveness of the broken places

the light shining through…

“It wasn’t your fault, honey. You did nothing wrong.”

which starts as a shimmer, a subtle ripple

And he gently draws me into his arms

before defining a new horizon.

and cries.

 


Leave a comment

A Gift of Mary Oliver

For Mary Wrobel

In my hand
the book of poetry you sent:
a bouquet of words
fragrant syllables
delicious, full,
ripe verse.

A welcome,
unexpected joy.

May some drifting breeze
blow a seed of gratitude
across the miles
and plant itself
neatly, quietly
to bloom in your garden.


4 Comments

The Long Road to Minimalism – Grand Finale

As I’ve been doing my purging, I’ve been fussing about the difficulty of the exercise on Facebook. At some point a little while back, I realized that in addition to my emotional attachments to books, I also seemed to be struggling with paring down my sock collection. Well, ok, “collection” is a strong word, implying a kind of intentional acquisition, when in actuality my sock drawers (yes, plural) filled more organically than intentionally. Still, when faced with discarding some of my socks, I found myself getting teary-eyed. “Oh,” I’d sniff sentimentally, “these were the socks I wore when hiking the Badlands of South Dakota.” (Then I sniffed physically, and into the waste bin they went. But not all my choices were that easy.)

In one of my sillier Facebook whine-fests, I asked people to supply me with arguments — in poem form — for ridding myself of excess socks. I got many good responses, but this one from my sister-in-law was my favorite. I asked if I could share it, and she graciously gave me permission. I give you…

One Sock, Two Sock, Red Sock, Blue Sock

By A Seuss Wanna-be (Kimberly Arlia)

 

One sock

Two sock

Red sock

Blue sock

 

Black sock

Blue sock

Old sock

New sock

 

This one has a little cat.

This one has a little bat.

Say!  What a ton

But socks are fun!

 

Yes.  Some are red.  And some are blue.

Some are old.  And some are new.

 

Some are worn.

And some are torn.

Some you outgrew.

And some Bodhi likes to chew.

 

Why are they

Worn and torn?

Outgrown and chewed?

HEAVENS KNOWS – your mother spews!

 

Some are thin,

And some are f a t.

Some are missing

Taken by a rat?

 

From there to here, from here to there,

Funny socks

Are everywhere.

 

You see them come.

You see them go.

But now you need

To shop no mo’

 

Pair them up.

Take a day!

Got a hole?

Throw away!

 

Organize, stow away!

Make it neat.

Socks are a treat,

For pretty feet!

 

Bodhi-framed

“I’ve been framed.”

For more on my sock trials and tribulations, visit my story on Medium: 12 Steps to Minimalism (alternately: The Sock Incident).


Leave a comment

The Crossing

Note: I originally published this as a series, without posting it to my social channels, for reasons of my own. It’s still out here as individual pieces, but I’m reposting as a single poem, to make it easier to read — a long scroll, rather than the need to find and click through each individual section. I’ve also made a few, small revisions for clarity’s sake.

A year ago tonight, as Coyote lay dying, I wrote scraps of poetry in the spaces between tending to her. I eventually strung those scraps together into one long poem in 10 sections, one for each year she lived with me. I’ll publish one every night for the next 10 days.

This is my small ceremony, marking her passing. It’s the part of the story I haven’t yet told: the strange journey of her last hours.


i – The Watchers

The Ancestors silently wait,

warming themselves in the silvery lights

of a thousand-thousand watch-fires

burning in the night sky —

beacons lit to guide you Home.

Each of your inhalations is a rattle,

a small ceremony in itself.

I count the spaces between them

and send the Watchers the only prayer that will take shape

in my grief-ravaged mind:

Be gentle. Carry this soul gently away.

 

ii – Fire Ceremony

For three days and three nights

I’d burned the spirit candle

afraid of missing the exact moment.

You lingered, long after the wick became ash.

On the last night, I scraped together the puddled wax,

collected it in a bowl and lit another candle beneath it.

I helplessly prayed that its drifting, perfumed smoke

would still mark the shining path for you.

 

iii – Visitation

You pant, releasing a savage cry,

a groaning howl that rakes my insides to shreds.

I can feel the Ancestors encircling us, crowding us.

Their patient silence is a curtain of darkness.

“Call her,” I plead in a whisper hoarse with crying.

“Her name is Coyote. Call her.”

We know her name, I hear as if in echo.

We know her name, and it is not the one you call her by.

Your gasping cry halts.

Your heart does not.

We are left wrapped in the heavy silence.

 

iv – Dead Air

A friend calls to check on us,

the question kind but exhausting.

“She’s dying,” I say, by way of an update.

I’ve been saying this for weeks now.

I’m not even sure

I know what it means.

 

v – Drum Ceremony

You struggle to be free. I am bitter.

We’d done everything we knew how to do —

opened the Portal for you

with drumming and song, hoping

you would cross quickly, easily.

We mortals with our pretty little faith,

I think darkly, bitterly.

All the while the skin stretches tightly

over the rabbit-like heartbeat

of our desperation.

I gasp; the shock of my blasphemy

leeches the bitterness from my body,

leaving only the desperation.

 

vi – Constancy

You exhale. There is a long pause.

My heart wrestles with guilty hope

and anguished fear.

A beat too long…and you inhale again.

Something breaks in me.

I want to shout at you:

“Let go, dammit! Let go, you stubborn dog!

Why are you torturing me like this?”

I stare at the phone, wanting to make the call

that will end it for you — for me.

Call, my breaking heart begs.

You promised, counters my soul.

I carefully curl around your failing body,

no strength left in my own,

no will left for the argument.

We continue on as we were —

you breathing and not-breathing;

me keeping watch —

my promise upheld

this time

by exhaustion.

 

vii – A Second Visitation

The groaning, barking cries start again.

I sob.

You have heard this sound before,

my dead grandfather whispers.

I raise my head, startled.

“It’s the sound of pain,” I rail at him aloud, my fists clenched

against the memory of his death.

It’s the sound of transition, he tells me gently.

I sink into a heap next to you,

stroking your soft fur, suddenly wondering

if every touch pulls you back,

holds you in stasis.

 

viii – Humility

I wad the towel in my hand.

It’s soaked through

with shit and piss

and green vomit.

I don’t even stand.

I throw it over the porch railing

listening for the weight of its splatter

as it lands on the ground near the bin.

I pause before unfolding myself

to bring fresh towels.

My hubris:

I believed the face of Death

would be familiar to me

simply because I had seen it before.

 

ix – Circle Dance

There’s nothing left to do.

I close my eyes

and turn my face to the Mother Moon,

shining straight-backed and pregnant with death

through the window in my living room.

I pick up my drum, and feel them take their places —

the Council of Ancient Women.

They weave a net out of strands of light

pulled through my skin, from the core of my soul

and begin entwining you in it.

There’s nothing left to do.

I pick up my drum

and dance.

 

x – Into the Light

I find you at first light,

your body stiff and cold —

spent —

your soul released.

And I realize:

For all my striving

all I ever had to do

was let you go.