An Old Poem about Erosion and Memory

This is an old poem I wrote that appears in revised form in the Blanket Stories anthology by Ragged Sky Press. It’s inspired by a place I went as a kid, Washaway Beach, Washington.

Washaway

I remember
I've been here before.

On a family vacation
I saw the beach washed away.
We couldn’t drive further.
The highway dove straight into the Pacific,
pavement disappearing under waves.
Chunks of grey concrete,
crumble in the murky surf.

We terrified onlookers witnessed the
broken homes and scattered possessions,
worn-out and weather-beaten.
An empty bathtub, a lifeless bassinet
cradling its driftwood cadaver.
Corroded plumbing stuck out of the sand
like grasping, skinless fingers
pointing desperately towards heaven.

I was ten years old when I saw
those seconds swallowed up.
My home is nothing but a ghost town,
filled with sand. The silent spirits:
those I never really knew,
those who hunted me.
Their death-scent followed me here
as vultures surround me like a halo.

I sit on the shore, the water
darts around my ankles, a new, live birth.
All these grains of sand— uncountable and unaccounted for—
memories I want so desperately to forget,
secrets I know I can no longer keep.
Scatter the remains across the ocean. Walk away.
We will never speak of it again.

How Not to Disassociate

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how I view my body, how I engage with it, how I treat it. I’m guilty of forgetting about my body most of the time. I think this is very common for survivors of sexual abuse. We dissociate. Because the experience of actually being in your body is so uncomfortable, you remove yourself from it completely. It’s a useful skill in the midst of trauma, but it can become problematic if it becomes your default way of being.

You can end up ignoring a lot of things if you’re not present in your physical body–things like pain and sickness, which often leads to more pain and more sickness. Even basic states of being, like hunger or exhaustion. You just keep going on, for example, unaware that you haven’t eaten all day, in fact, you only notice when your hands are wildly shaking and you can’t type anymore.

Feelings are sourced in the body. I might feel fear as a widening pit in my stomach, or sadness as a heavy weight on my chest. Of course, if I’m divorced from my body, I don’t feel these things very well or at all. In fact, that’s probably the point: to be numb. But if you do this enough then over the years you grow up into someone who legitimately doesn’t know what they feel, much less how to express it. That’s what happened to me anyway.

Also, I wonder if there’s something basically comforting about staying in the mind, about not having to worry about the body.  Bodies get sick, they get old, they’re fallible, they remind us of how fragile and impermanent our existence is. For women especially, bodies can seem to be more of a liability than anything else. A target for violence, a public commodity (more on that in a later post!). So, there’s this theme of the body as a vulnerability.

Also, related, there’s the body as an oppositional force. I felt this way acutely during my pregnancy and the birth of my daughter. I treated my body like a defective machine. I felt like it had failed me, I felt betrayed. Or when I was recently diagnosed with hemochromatosis, a genetic disease where your body doesn’t properly process iron, and eventually it stores in your vital organs. Your body effectively poisons itself. Again, feelings of anger and betrayal. Must I always be at war with my body?  (Do I even have a right to be mad, after ignoring it for so long? Whose fault even is it? Why do these things happen in the first place? I don’t know!)

When I find myself resisting my physical experiences, I try to turn to my body with compassion.  I ask, what is it trying to tell me. There’s so much that our bodies do for us. Things that are beyond our comprehension, beyond what even science can explain. Mysterious things that keep us alive. So many things that have gone unappreciated by me for far too long. Maybe that sort of understanding and appreciation is a way forward towards, if nothing else, a more harmonious coexistence.

Relics from the Past: Ghosts and Haunted Houses

I just got a short story published in a local online journal, Hamlit. It’s actually a story I wrote several years ago, before my daughter was born and I still lived in DC. My life was a lot different back then.

I wrote it for a class on Ghost Stories that I took at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. It’s more of a thought experiment than a story. I re-imagined my honeymoon as if it were populated by ghosts.

The story is set in Saguenay, a beautifully remote part of Quebec where I went for my actual honeymoon. The amalgamation of cultures, the stark beauty of the fjords, the weird art installations (for more see: Wikipedia) all had an otherworldly feel to them.

This was written during a phase where I was particularly interested in domestic horror: haunted houses, invaded bodies, suffocating marriages. And especially, the idea of secret lives: Who lived in your house before you did? Who was your partner before you knew them? Who were your parents before you were born? Or even, what parts of you remain hidden from your own view?

I even started writing a NaNo novel around these sorts of themes: A pregnant woman finds a pair of children’s shoes buried in the fireplace of the old victorian home she and her husband recently moved into. She becomes convinced that the house is haunted, marred by some unspeakable event. Then I got pregnant and never finished it. 

Still today, the symbolism of the haunted house fascinates me. So do ghosts. Sometimes I feel like we live in a world made of ghosts. Trauma is a kind of ghost. Family secrets are a kind of ghost. Even my stories become ghosts.

Finding the Words: Where Fact and Fiction Meet

One thing I’ve noticed recently is that I don’t always know what I feel. I may feel it fully, but my throat closes in on itself when I try to name the feeling. This happened to me all the time as a kid. Sometimes–and it can be years after the fact–I’ll be reading something and come across a word describing someone else’s experience, and it’ll hit me like a slap in the face. Oh, that’s the word for it.

I remember reading a book last year in which the author detailed a woman’s response to her husband leaving her for their teenaged babysitter. She felt humiliated. That’s never a word I had used or thought to use to describe myself, but I realized then that’s how I’ve felt so many times. Before, I might have said I was “embarrassed” or “anxious,” but that’s not quite right. Those words lacked, glossing over the full terror of the experience and the deep, abiding shame that lingers long after the original event has faded.

As terribly as the feeling is, I’m glad to have that word to hold on to. To give meaning to what might otherwise seem a futile experience in powerlessness. Still, even now, I feel the sting of rebuke: Can I actually talk about this? Can I bear it? Can others? I think maybe that’s why these words, true meaningful words, evaded me for as long as they did. They are almost, it seems, unspeakable when applied to the self and everyday lived experiences, especially the domestic. No one wants to hear about how bad you felt, especially not at the hands of those who were supposed to protect you. Instead, you get over it. Move on. Become resilient. But there’s a fine line between moving on and denial, which only serves to cement the shame in your psyche.

I read an article recently about a Norweigian novelist. She wrote a fictional novel about a woman who was abused by her father as a child. However, the novel so conspicuously paralleled her own life that it has led many people to believe it is autobiographical. And she’s not the first writer to (allegedly) fuse fiction and fact. I think most writers do this to some extent. And I can certainly understand how trauma can seem a better fit for fiction. Not just for the consumption of the general public, but also for one’s own sake. Maybe some distance is helpful to cut beyond the culture of silence, of “just move on.” Hopefully, the fiction becomes the catalyst for that forward movement. The first step is simple: Find the right word.

We Don’t Know What “Normal” Is

I, like many others, suffer from anxiety. Often, it is just a generalized buzzing, a pervasive feeling of dread, this excess negative energy. Other times it is acute, sharp, and dangerous-feeling. These are panic attacks. To me, these feel way worse than the generalized anxiety, which typically starts in my head and stays there. Panic, on the other hand, hijacks my body. My heartbeat feels impossibly fast, my throat feels like it’s closing, my vision narrows and darkens. My chest feels constricted. Sometimes, I can’t feel my hands. I can feel myself spinning out of control. In those moments, I feel horribly damaged. Broken. Like there is something really wrong with me.

I haven’t really found a great solution for the panic attacks. For me, the best plan of action has been to avoid situations that tend to lead to panic attacks. But, once I’m in the middle of one, the only thing to do is ride it out, pray to a god that I don’t really believe in, repeat some positive affirmations that I don’t really believe in, lie through my teeth and tell myself that I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay. Eventually, it passes.

Afterward, I still feel shaky and weak. It’s like I’ve seen a part of myself and I can’t go back.  I’ve seen myself for who I really am: frail and fragile and struggling to keep it together, and usually failing. I don’t always see myself this way, but there’s something about the aftermath of a panic attack that makes me feel vulnerable and flawed. This feeling can last for days or weeks. I feel depressed and, ultimately, anxious again.

That’s when I try to remind myself that I don’t know what normal is. Not really. Have I ever been normal? How would I know? So, what am I striving for? Most of the time, I tell myself that I should be different or how I shouldn’t have this problem. I compare myself to some imaginary person who has all their shit together. Deep down I know it’s a fiction: to think you know about someone else’s interior life. We don’t know what normal is. All we have is our own lived experience. Start from there. All those shoulds and should’nts just end up giving you an inferiority complex.

Holy Cross

This is the nonfiction essay I wrote that I am using (with great artistic license) as part of my NaNo novel. N.B.: this is a rough draft, and I don’t usually write non-fiction. Also N.B.: This is a pretty personal story about my traumatic experience pregnancy and childbirth, probably not a topic for everyone, but I hope that it resonates with someone out there.

The Virgin Mary watched as the doors parted and we entered Holy Cross. I was 42 weeks pregnant—eager, full, expectant. They placed me in the High Risk pregnancy unit, the standard procedure for inductions. I was ready, but I wasn’t prepared for the grimness, the culture of fear the permeates the walls of the labor and delivery wards. The nurses and their veiled threats of “let’s hope you don’t have a C-section,” or how they would run around frantic every time I moved, dislodging the wires that flimsily held my baby’s heartbeat. Once, after a dose of Pitocin, the rhythmic beeps disappeared. Four nurses rushed in. They positioned me on all fours as they yelled and moved the sensors, searching for the heartbeat. The baby had shifted. Once stable, they left us alone with the machines and the beeps. It all seemed so fragile.

The next day, my water broke. But the baby was stuck. And my blood pressure continued to rise. As I was given magnesium, I was told that I would have to wait 24 hours after the birth to hold my baby. I did not know what magnesium meant. I didn’t know it would make my vision double. I didn’t know it would make me retch. What choice did I have anyway? At midnight, I was told I would have to have a C-section. My husband suited up in that pale blue gear as I was wheeled into the OR. Four people had to flip me from the hospital bed to the shining operating table. I was nothing but dead weight.

I shivered and shook on the table. The pain in my right shoulder was as sharp as the scalpel in my stomach. Over my left shoulder, my husband begged me to stay awake. His voice was insistent but far away. The cold kept me awake, but I did not want to be. I was trapped in a body that was no longer under my control. All I wanted was an end to suffering. Somewhere in the distance, the doctor was counting her instruments. I didn’t even care about seeing my daughter, the one I had hoped and waited for. A nurse pushed her close to my face so I could see her, but I barely even moved my head. By the time I did, she was gone.

Back in the labor and delivery, I was told my daughter was in the NICU. Her face was deformed. They suspected it was a genetic disease, but they needed to run some tests to be certain. After five hours, my husband was allowed to visit her. I laid back in the hospital bed, as the encroaching dawn cast a livid glow on the machinery surrounding me. I waited from news from the NICU: nothing but neon green lights in the glinting dawn.

Twelve hours later, my husband wheeled me down to the NICU where I met my daughter for the first time. She was bruised and fragile, hooked up to wires and boisterous contraptions. She had a tiny iv inserted into her tiny little wrist. I worried about pushing the needle further into her skin as I picked her up. I sat awkwardly cradling her in my wheel chair, adjusting the wires, and fumbling with my nursing bra in the middle of the NICU, flanked by one-pound babies in incubators and their sullen-looking families. A NICU-nurse hovered over me as I tried to get my daughter to latch. She adjusted my nipple and pressed my daughters face into my breast. She admonished me for stroking my daughter. “A newborn’s skin is too sensitive.” I felt like a failure and I was ashamed.

Afterwards, my husband would wheel me back up to my room, and I would cry. I cried because I was in pain, I cried because I wanted to hold my baby, I cried because I wasn’t sure she or I would ever leave. A nurse said I had postpartum depression. I lied and said I was crying because I was so happy. I wouldn’t let them see me cry again. I didn’t want them to keep me any longer.

On the fifth day, the hospital chaplain paid a visit, she made the rounds to all the parent’s with babies in the NICU. She asked how got through the difficult times. I looked at my husband and said blandly, “we support each other.” I wanted to say, “What choice do I have?”

I left Holy Cross on the seventh day after my arrival, feeling beat up, defeated, exhausted from the ordeal of having to protect my fragile self against the onslaught of fear. I took my daughter with me.

My daughter will turn two in November. Every day I look at her and know I have so much to be thankful for. She is healthy, exuberant, joyful. People look at her and say “all’s well that ends well.” But some things linger. I can’t go into a hospital, not even to visit my sister in the maternity ward. Every cough, fever, or sniffle from my daughter elicits a deep pulse of panic within me—please, god, don’t let her be sick again. I can’t go back. Precious moments are stolen away from me through anxiety. Fear lurks around every corner.

When I tell people about this, they often act as if I am expressing something unspeakable. As if talking about the ordeal makes my child any less precious, or childbirth any less miraculous. Perhaps it is an affront to god to feel disappointed. But I think if there is a god, she would welcome it. After Holy Cross, I am acutely aware of my own weakness and fragility: I thought I was going to die and I did not fight back. I did not fight to see my child. I lied down, defeated, and I cried until fear caused my tears to stop. I curse my body and it’s failed machinery: I will never have children again. These are some harsh truths about me. Sometimes, there is no choice to be made. But, I am learning to lean into the fear, the disappointment, the uncertainty. Just a little. And bit by bit, I embrace it, tentatively, like a newborn.

Day One: Recap

“’In all men’s hearts a slumbering swine lies low,’ says the French poet; so come ye, whose porcine instincts have never yet been awakened, or if rampant successfully hidden, and hurl the biggest, sharpest stones you can lay your hands on at your wretched, degraded, humiliated brother, who has been found out.

-Oscar Wilde

Day one, and it has been ridiculously productive! I hit a gold mine by retelling a real-life experience that’s been fresh in my memory. I wrote it out as a nonfiction piece, then rewrote it in a slightly creepier tone and fictionalized some major elements to make it fit in as it as part of my novel.

I basically used it as part of the backstory for my main character. It’s really helped me get into the story a bit more. The main character (don’t have a name yet) went through a series of traumatic experiences, eventually leading her to completely change her life and transform into this pseudo-religious leader/cult leader/feminist icon (or something). This is where the story begins!

Also, I feel like I should explain the Oscar Wilde quote: I really like it and it fits into my story, somehow. It’s pretty biblical. I always think of women being stoned in the Bible, but I guess it applies to men too.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoning