The Trauma of Separation

11-year-old girl tearfully pleads for dad's release after massive ICE raid
11-year-old girl tearfully pleads for dad’s release after a massive ICE raid.

Last Thursday, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) raided several agricultural processing plants across Mississippi and arrested 680 individuals, mainly Latino immigrants, who were deemed to be working “unlawfully” at the plants.

First Day of School

Thursday also happened to be the first day of school in Mississippi. This meant that many children were not picked up from school or daycare at the end of their day and many went home from school to find doors locked and their parents absent. Some of these kids returned back to their schools in desperation, where they slept in makeshift shelters, put together by school staff and volunteers. Others were taken in by strangers or relatives. 

When my kids were younger, I remember having to leave work in a rush and navigate the traffic hour in order to get to them on time. On the rare occasion that I was a few minutes late, I remember my heart pounding all the way to the school along with the hurt on their tiny faces once I arrived. “Where were you?” They would ask, trying to suppress tears. “I got scared.” Those were the most painful minutes. 

Those were the most painful minutes. 

Escaping Iran

I also know something about this from personal experience. My family escaped Iran on foot in 1981, when I was only 10 years old. In writing my memoir, I realized the scariest part of our escape to safety, was the time that I was separated from my parents for about six to eight hours.

We had just arrived in Turkey, in the middle of the night, after several days and nights in the mountains. We needed to split up into two cars for the final leg of our journey, so I was sent ahead in a separate car to our next destination. My mother and two sisters followed the next morning.

It’s important to note that by this time I had already lived through the violent Islamic Revolution in 1978, which had no shortage of bloodshed, I had experienced the horrors of war when Iran went into battle with Iraq in 1980, there had been soldiers inside my house, I had seen dead bodies on our porch and had guns pointed at our heads during our escape. Still, all of that was less scary than being separated from my parents for those few hours. 

Talking Trauma

I could tell you about why people take these risks. I could tell you about the gut-wrenching, decision-making process that leads a family into unknown territory. I could tell you about how bad things actually have to get before one decides to escape the only place they’ve ever called home. I’m writing a whole book about it, but I won’t get into that here. I’m also not here to offer sweeping immigration reform solutions. I’m not here to speak about who is to blame, or who’s at fault for our “immigration problem” in the first place. I’m also not here to explain why these arrests are different than, let’s say a DUI arrest. 

I want to talk to you about trauma instead. I have worked as a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of California since 2008 and I have worked primarily with trauma survivors since 2012. I have focused my life and career on helping individuals heal from the effects of adverse experiences in their lives and can tell you that trauma lives inside our bodies long after the traumatic event ends and the shock wears off.

Trauma’s Long-Lasting Effects

I can tell you that for those children who were separated from their parents and for all of the thousands who are currently detained at our borders, this trauma will have long-lasting effects. Trauma shows up in my office daily as depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicidal ideation. Early childhood trauma also shows up as high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and other health problems well into adulthood.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control has found that adverse childhood experiences have been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death.

The Worst Night of My Life

I am writing a memoir about this period of my life. A lot of what my family went through in the late 70s Iran, is painful to remember and to write about. Writing has been a slow process for this reason and I had expected that. But my response to writing about this brief period of separation was surprising even to myself. The pain felt current, unresolved, and raw as if my body had held onto it all of this time, waiting for a safe enough place, to finally put it all down.

The night I was separated from my parents was the worst night of my life. Thirty-eight years later, I sobbed while writing about it. I realized that I have never been able to think about those few hours without a feeling of panic rising in my chest. Not once. I built a wall around my heart that night and shoved down all emotions deep inside of me. It would take decades of corrective connections and years of therapy before I had access to any softness within myself once again. 

However, we might justify these arrests, however, “short term” we might think the separation will last, these events will be traumatic for those parents and their children and will have long term effects. On Friday, 300 of those arrested Thursday were released, which begs the question: Why were they arrested in the first place? 

Is This Who We Are?

We should all care more. How we treat people matters. Are we contributing to trauma or are we perpetuating it? Is this who we are? Are we willing and ready to deal with the outcomes of these events for years and generations to come? Because as a nation, we will have to eventually deal with what happens next, one way or another. All of us bear responsibility and all of us pay a price. We can’t look away. Please don’t look away.

Meet Mahshid

The author, Mahshid Hager

Mahshid Fashandi Hager is a therapist turned writer. In her work as a therapist, she offers treatment and support to survivors of trauma. She first began writing as a way to process her own traumatic history of immigration but, soon discovered the power of sharing her stories with others. In her upcoming memoir, No Way Back, Mahshid takes us on a journey back through her childhood as she recalls her family’s trials and tribulations during the Iranian revolution, the war with Iraq, and her family’s subsequent, inevitable escape from their home. Mahshid’s story serves as a resource for anyone who aims to understand the plight of refugees and immigrant families in our world today.

Birdsong of Discernment: 5:30 a.m.

Red heart and white heart with wings

There are all kinds of words
Flying round in my head
Clattering, battering
Most best left unsaid.

Which ones to let out
Is a struggle to find
When I’m trying too hard
They’re like flies in my mind.

Put on the spot
I’m liable to blurt
And those words, uncensored
Go nowhere, or hurt.

“So what, they’re honest,”
Says the narcissist self.
“Take a risk, you’ll get braver,”
Says my devious elf.

Then something quieter
Begins to come through–
A gentle reminder:
“It’s not all about you.”

Some birdsong came in
And as I calmed down and listened
The chatter receded
Revealing something that glistened.

“It’s the seed of discernment,”
Said a voice from below,
“Listening, not talking
Is the way you should go.

Your mind makes sound judgments
When it’s attuned to your heart
Perceiving the source
Is playing your part.

All of that static
That roils around in your head
Is when you’re trapped up
In your thinking instead.

They call that ‘judgmental’
Denouncing from above
But the flow of good judgment
Comes from your love.

When your feet are connected
With the rest of the planet
And you’re no longer acting
Like you’re the only one on it,

When you’re thrown off-kilter
By all the words in your head
It’s time for a croissant
And birdsong instead.”

Nicola Ranson’s father was a flower fairy, (no, really, look up Cicely Mary Barker’s Daisy Fairy) her mother a descendant of Rob Roy MacGregor. Because of (or despite) this illustrious ancestry, she developed a yen for the mystical and the feistiness to survive some of the consequences. Her survival skills were honed and supported in the gardens of the U.K., the croissant shops of Quebec, and the suburban wilderness of Southern California. She learned to listen by becoming a therapist. She has written for Stage Directions, Advanced Computer Entertainment, Somatic Psychotherapy Today, as well as problem columns for people with Inflammatory Bowel Disease and those seeking the wisdom of fairies. Nicola lives in Leucadia with her filmmaker husband Ron, and a visiting backyard rabbit who hasn’t been informed about her MacGregor ancestry. She’s now working on her memoir “A Slice of Orange.”

Images by Merio from Pixabay and Nicola Ransom

Summer Dreaming

Writers from the San Diego Memoir Showcase 2018
Laura Engel with the writers and producers from the 2018 San Diego Memoir Showcase.

San Diego Memoir Showcase

I’m in my home office getting ready to hit ‘submit’ on the computer screen. Submitting my work for our local Memoir Showcase is as scary for me today as it was that first time I submitted work in June of 2017. At that time my memoir was simply an outline, a dream. 

The Pain

I have weeded through several scenes saved in my documents, trimmed and edited a few and now decided on the ones to submit. But there are other scenes I read through and ponder. Here is the scene that, while writing it, I often had to stop typing and go outside to stare at the sky. Huge gulping sobs came from deep inside of me as I trembled on my patio. I was inconsolable. I had written about the birth of my first son in the sweltering heat of New Orleans in 1967. Remembering that night, alone and petrified, knowing I would have to leave my baby there was overwhelming. Writing it was excruciating. My heart ached for that young girl.

A New Perspective

Another scene makes me cringe while reading it.  This scene with my ex-husband on a miserable hot steamy night in Mississippi brought me to my knees when I first wrote it. I remember unchecked tears streaming down my face as I tapped away at my keyboard, my shoulders feeling as if someone was beating on them. His angry face still as real today as it was on that night over fifty years ago. A black fury overcame me as I pushed away from my desk. How dare he treat me like that? I questioned all these years later. I wanted to hug that sad young woman who thought this was to be her life forever.

The Bliss

Ah, and here is the scene when I meet my beloved second husband.  Once again, the day was in late summer. The sun is hot, my sons are there racing for soccer balls, and my life is about to change in ways I would never have been able to predict. I love this scene and remember as I typed it how my heartbeat reliving those first words, those first moments that would result in love so beyond reason that it would knock to me to my knees and take me to heights I had never dreamed. I rewrote that scene over and over and loved my husband more with each revised piece. I wanted to tell that young woman ‘you are thinking with your heart, and it is the smartest thing you will ever do.’

Finding the Humor

Another scene makes me laugh out loud. Me, in my thirties, flying across the Coronado bridge in my yellow Volkswagen bug stuffed to the brim with our five kids along with towels and beach toys for a day at the beach. As I typed, I remembered the wind in our hair as we sailed over the bridge singing at the top of our lungs along with the Bee Gees’ “Stayin Alive.” I can feel the golden sun burning my shoulders as I l sit in my bikini on an old quilt surrounded by my ocean wet giggling kids.  I see my children gobbling sandy sandwiches and cookies, all talking at once. Tears for what once was run down my cheeks. Oh, to have one of those days again. That summer was my halcyon summer, and I didn’t even know it. 

Reliving Memories

Okay, time to stop reminiscing, reading through my writing, living again as that young and sometimes fearless woman. I could sit here and do that for days. After all, there are seventy summers and countless tiny scenes that, patched together, make as colorful a quilt as any glorious midsummer sunset I have ever seen.

As I write memories, I relive them. I feel the sun. I feel the love, the sadness, the joy. The heft of my newborn sons in my arms, my Grammy’s fleeting kiss on my cheek, the chilly indifference from my mother, my crippling fear of my ex-husband crawl through me again. 

  I smell the scents of summer, my sons’ wet hair, Coppertone, freshly mowed grass, chicken sizzling on the grill. I bite into the first peach of the summer again, taste the salt of my lover’s skin, sip sun tea. I hear the crash of waves at the beach, my sons’ young voices calling “Mom,” our dog barking, my Daddy’s voice, my beloved husband whispering he’ll “love me forever” the first time. 

Submit

I marvel at the gift of writing those memories. Time does stand still, if for a short spell, because when I write it, I relive it. Is that not the best gift of all? I will continue writing my story as there are many more summers to revisit, some wretched, but most splendid.

Okay, here goes. I click on submit. Good luck to me and good luck to all the writers who submitted.

The author, Laural L. Engel

Laura L. Engel’s Bio

Recently retired after 35 years as a regional sales representative for a national title insurance company, Laura left the corporate world and plunged headlong into writing her memoir in 2017. She has completed the Memoir Writing Certificate Program with Master Writing Coach Marni Freedman and currently serves as President of the San Diego Memoir Writers Association. She has won a place in the San Diego Memoir Showcase twice with scenes from her memoir. Her scene, “Secret Son,” was published in the anthology, Shaking The Tree: Brazen. Short.Memoir, in 2018. Along with SDMWA, Laura is also a member of the International Women’s Writing Guild, Thought Leaders Who Write in San Diego, and San Diego Writers, Ink. Recently Laura was interviewed by Dani Shapiro for her Family Secrets Podcast.

Laura’s memoir in progress is You’ll Forget This Ever Happened.: The Story of a Mother’s Love and Secret She Never Forgot. For more information, please visit Laura’s website and listen to her Dani Shapiro podcast by clicking here.

You can follow Laura on Facebook at Laura l. Engel Author and on Instagram at @storytellerlaura

Leaning on Your Beloveds: Breaking Through Writer’s Block with Tarot Centos

The cover of a book of poems called America, We Call Your Name, Poems of Resistance and Resilience.

Writing Centos

Let’s say you, writer, are at a loss for words. Some life event has completely stunned you into silence. This happened to me the day after the 2016 election results were announced when my hopes for witnessing a female candidate win the Presidency were dashed. Unable to write my own poems, I created a class, “Election Blues: The Gift of Agency in Poetry,” during which we took up writing centos.

What Is a Cento?

A cento is a poem comprised solely of a group of lines, each borrowed from a different writer. The idea is that you borrow the lines and leave the words largely intact, in order, within the line, but the expectation is that you will rearrange the lines themselves into order in line with your focus.

My First Step

Here’s what I did: I grabbed volumes within arm’s reach off my bookshelf. They were by women writers (with the exception of William Carlos Williams) I admire and love from across time as well as contemporary writers. Working with the cento form, I drew on the strength and power of their words to “get back home” and find my passion again. My dozen or so books were authored by:

  • Emily Dickinson
  • Joy Harjo
  • Bhanu Kapil
  • Maxine Hong Kingston
  • Audre Lord
  • Malinda Markham
  • Colleen J. McElroy
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Kay Ryan
  • Joan Swift
  • Ruth Thompson
  • William Carlos Williams

Adding Tarot Principles to the Writing Process

As a longtime tarot reader, it also occurred to me that I could apply tarot-reading principles to my cento writing process. When you read tarot cards, you focus on a question of the heart, shuffle the cards and choose cards blind (meaning the cards remain face down while you are choosing so the images are hidden until you begin the reading).

The Drafting Process

So when drafting my centos, I used my stack of books by other writers as my working tarot deck. For my project, I focused on five individuals: The female candidate vying for election (Hillary Clinton), the sitting President Barack Obama, the First Lady Michelle Obama, the incoming Republican candidate, and the incoming First Lady. Focusing on one person at a time, I put my hand on my heart and paid attention to the mix of emotions I was feeling. Each time I allowed the book in my hand to fall open and let my eye fall on a line, mimicking the process of selecting facedown tarot cards. Once I had copied down my lines, one from each volume for each person, I brought my poet self to bear on rearranging the lines into a meaningful order that best reflected my various states of love, gratitude, fear, and concern.

Looking for Synchronicity

Having worked with the tarot for so long, I was prepared for synchronicity—and indeed I found it in the five centos. Each randomly selected group of lines provided an accurate mirror for my sensibility. Of course, you can argue that any random group of lines can be made to mean one thing in one context and something entirely different in another, but this didn’t stop me from trying the form and enjoying the inadvertent “reading.”

Poetry, like tarot, works powerfully by association and context. When we plug in a question for a tarot reading or we plug in a person as the focus for a cento, the associations boomerang back to that central question or person, inviting us to look deeper. And more importantly, the process of leaning on our beloveds (other writers, in this case) and the process of asking, seeking and playing gets the pen moving across the page, nudging us to create again.

Writing Your Own Tarot Centos

1) Start by choosing a dilemma, question, dream, or desire you have for which you’d like to consult the oracle of poetry through the work of other writers.

2) Gather up your “oracle books” off your shelf. You may wish to add a randomizing quality to your “deck” by choosing every 3rd book on your shelf or even doing so in the library or bookstore. I focused my “deck” by choosing mostly women writers, a very specific group. Your stack of books can be as diverse or as singularly focused as you wish.

3) Put your hand to heart and go over your question/person in your mind’s eye as you point the arrow of your inquiry. Take one book at a time and either randomly select lines or use some kind of organizing principle (3rd line on every other page). You decide how long or short you want your resulting cento to be, and copy each selected line from each author onto your page.

4) Read over your entire group of lines. Have fun…rearrange them in the order that makes sense to you.

*Keep track of your line attributions to give each writer credit.

Here are links to MP3s of three of the centos from the series of five.

An Iris for Hillary MP3

An Iris for Hillary

*An Iris for Hillary was published in America We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2018) https://www.sixteenrivers.org/authors/our-anthology/

Open Letter to Donald Trump MP3

Open Letter to Donald Trump

A Thank You Letter to Barack Obama MP3

A Thank You Letter to Barack Obama

About Tania

Tania Pryputniewicz, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of November Butterfly (Saddle Road Press, 2014). Recent poems appeared in the anthology America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience and NILVX: A Book of Magic (Tarot Series). Her poetry chapbook, Berkeley Postcard, was a finalist for the Comstock Writers Group Chapbook Contest in 2018. The poem, “Two Gardens,” from Berkeley Postcard is forthcoming in Rockvale Review and won Tania a residency in Tennessee at the Rockvale Writers’ Colony. She teaches poetry at San Diego Writers, Ink and she’d be delighted if you walked into her workshop with a cento of your own to share. Tania lives in Coronado with her husband, three children, blue-eyed Husky, and one formerly feral cat named Luna. She blogs at Tarot for Two and can be found online at www.taniapryputniewicz.com.

*This Tarot Cento exercise is sample chapter from Tania’s Heart’s Compass Tarot and Writing workbook forthcoming from Saddle Road Press; it was also shared with students attending The Bold Poet: Finding Your Muse workshop at the inaugural 2019 San Diego Writer’s Festival.

The Drop-In Technique

A stack of rocks in a cairn

About the Drop-In Technique: A Guided Meditation To Access Your Life Experience 

For years of teaching memoir classes, we needed a way for writers to bring their true life experiences to the page as if the reader was a fly on the wall—in the moment with them. Yet, at the same time, if it was a difficult life experience, we wanted the writer to access memories without feeling overwhelmed.
We tried many techniques and finally found success with a guided meditation that helps the writer visualize their life as a timeline they can drop into at any moment, yet feel a sense of protection from the raw emotions the writer may have experienced during the time they first lived through the experience.

,
It’s been a powerful tool I have used for years. Usually, I read the meditation out loud and then allow for time for free writing in class. No tool has been met with more excitement and success and many had asked if I would record it. However, making a recording never felt right until I met Kimberly. She is a writer, healer, and yoga instructor and has a natural gift when it comes to guided meditations. Kimberly took the drop-in technique, added in music and made it her own. Please give yourself the gift of taking some time out to drop into a guided meditation. I would love to hear your thoughts about your experience. Enjoy!

Drop-In Technique for Memoir Writers

Warmly,

Marni

A photo of Kimberly Joy

Kimberly Joy writes to share messages that uplift and inspire. Her pieces encourage and provide new ways of perceiving the world and life’s experiences. Her background as a Physical Therapist, Restorative Yoga Teacher, and Guided Meditation Specialist gives her a deep understanding of the mind-body connection. She loves to share this wisdom in hopes of assisting others on their journeys of health, healing, and inner peace. You can find more of her writing at MessagesfromJoy.org

Music Credit: Christopher Lloyd Clarke

Photo Credit: Kimberly Joy and Bekir Dönmez on Unsplash

Writing about Mental Health – What to Do When What You Find Out Freaks You Out

by Madonna Treadway

Studying the Research on Grief and Loss

A few years ago, while doing research for my book 6 Healing Questions, A Gentle Path to Facing Childhood Loss of a Parent, I began studying the leading thinkers on grief and loss. I was hoping to find a clearly defined path from grief to healing. I wanted to better understand the process, and I wanted to know what the experts considered the “right way” to travel that path through grief. Furthermore, I thought that maybe I could then do grief and loss right, or at least do it better. In the most traumatic of ways, I had lost both of my parents before the age of eight. I knew that I had experienced a lot of healing, and I thought, with research, I would be able to communicate just how that healing had taken place. What I found out, however, wasn’t clear; in fact, it was highly confusing and downright overwhelming.

Is There a Roadmap to Grieving?

First, there simply wasn’t a concrete consensus about how one travels along a healing journey. Some researchers saw the grieving process as a series of steps. Some saw it as series of tasks or seasons. Still others argued over the very definition of ongoing bereavement. In the end, I found lots of varying approaches, but no clear guidelines or path. This was surprising and confusing, as I expected the experts to agree.

Then I began delving into information about the different types of grief. Again, there was no clear agreement on the definitions of the different types of grief. And when I threw in what I learned about the mental health codes in the DSM-V that therapists use to diagnose bereavement, I got even more lost.

A Hidden Danger

Even after all the confusion, there was another hidden danger, and I was about to get officially freaked out. As I diligently did my research, I learned that if you have experienced the violent death of a loved one (this includes homicide and suicide), you may be more prone to delayed grief and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you experienced this as a child, PTSD is even more likely, as your grieving process was probably interrupted because of your age. This may create seriously negative consequences in your life and behavior. Serious. Negative. Consequences.

Like what, you may ask.

Like an addiction, severe food-related medical disorders, serious mental health issues, and higher rates of depression and even incarceration, to mention a few. As I continued to read, I began to feel my chest tighten. It was beyond upsetting.

Freaking Out

Without my permission, my brain began recounting my early experience of my father’s sudden death. My heart beat faster and faster. My mind reeled. And my body felt—well, it was a cross between feeling frozen and feeling terrified. A panic attack seemed imminent. Was I going to develop a serious mental health issue? Would depression or anxiety overtake me?

I told myself to put down the research and focus on my breath, one breath at a time.

That night, I found myself shocked by my reaction. It was as if some part of me was fearful for my younger self. I was terribly afraid of what could have happened to me. This fear seemed illogical, and I felt odd even admitting this. I was clearly still a bit freaked out.

So I did more breathing. Then . . .

Time for a Break

I reminded myself that I was okay. And I decided that I needed to put down the research and take a break.

I backed off. I stopped writing for several weeks. I absorbed what I discovered and spent some time on self-care. Long walks and warm baths interspersed with my normal busy life. I spent time meditating and visualizing my child self on a safe path. My little dog Auggie gave me lots of sweet snuggles. My shock faded. I began writing again with valuable information about my topic and myself.

As I processed what I had learned, I also looked at the evidence of my current life.

I had not developed any of the serious disorders mentioned. I knew I had experienced delayed grief and trauma, yet I eventually processed it in healthy ways like therapy and dream work. I had done so much therapeutic work on myself that I felt I was finally ready to share what I had learned with others through a book.

What’s Next?

My advice? Do the research, but don’t take it as gospel. Turns out my truth was my truth, and that was all that mattered. And if you ever find yourself knee deep in overwhelm, take a well-earned break. Put the writing down. Enough with the research. Get out into nature. Remind yourself of the life you are living now and all that is beautiful and possible. And I highly suggest having a really cuddly dog on hand.

Photo by Cyndi Pérezita on Unsplash

Writing About Grief? Don’t Forget the Box of Tissues

I have been writing about grief for my upcoming book, Six Healing Questions: A Gentle Path to Facing Childhood Loss of a Parent. During the process, I wrote heartfelt stories about the early loss of my parents and the grieving or lack of grieving that followed. My motivation for including personal stories is to help others who have experienced similar early loss.

Why Cry Over Spilled Milk?

During writing class, I have told these stories out loud numerous times without a tear. Yet, to my surprise, writing these vignettes continued to break my heart. When I described the last time I saw my mother alive, I cried as if it had happened recently. One side of me welcomed this as cathartic. Another voice in my head was appalled. Can I still be crying over what happened so many years ago? My answer to my chagrined self was, “I guess so.” The hackneyed phrase, “why cry over spilled milk,” kept intruding in my psyche.

Writing with Tissues in Hand

I kept writing and kept my box of tissues close. What I learned was it got easier. I also learned that my inner child still needed tenderness. I imagined her sweet eyes looking up at me and accepting my love. After all the personal work I had done, it became clear that my child still needed care.

It Gets Easier

It is getting easier to share the stories without tears. I am more accepting of feeling the occasional emotional tug and not afraid of shedding a tear. Never being a crier, this has been a challenge. I now find that crying is good for me, and I plan to do as much as needed going forward. Not crying is a hard habit to break. I may need a bigger supply of tissues. I study my tissue box with blue and white stars and think of how cute it is.

For us non-criers in the world, I think we really are criers. Something has stopped us. The same person who told us not to cry over spilled milk likely told us other things to shut us up or maybe to help us move on. Who knows? They were wrong. Damn! I’m getting over this and plan to cry when I want to. Hoping you will join me in protest and cry too.

Taking Back My Home: Leaving the Jabberwocky Face Down

spider web

When I was in fourth grade, I was inspired by The Bailey School Kids series to write mysteries on index cards. But as soon as I hit double digits, the form of writing took on a new shape; the words created puzzle pieces that I desperately wanted to put together to understand the realities in life.  Years of therapeutic writing has helped me face how my innocence was taken away–an innocence that left through two family divorces and when those closest to me tragically left this world.  Writing about these negative situations enabled me to see my strength, so I could deal with and grow from them.

In college, I had the opportunity to explore with Therapeutic Uses of Writing courses, directed by Dr. Allan Hunter. Hunter saw therapeutic writing as self-exploration. He offered exercises that allowed us to process emotions. Some exercises rooted from different stages in our lives such as childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. On more than one occasion we listened to Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll.  Next, we’d draw and write about our own Jabberwocky, a current struggle in our lives. It wasn’t until the third semester, the last part of this class, that the Jabberwocky represented a past struggle for me. I could no longer keep silent. It was unusual to lie to myself in my writing, but I had done it, dancing around the truth in journal entries and poetry.  Going around in class we described our monsters. I soothed my throat with water and announced, “I was molested by my ex-brother-in-law” for the first time.

For my written reflection on this exercise, I closed the shades in my mother’s basement, zippered myself in a hooded sweatshirt and kept a pool stick nearby for protection. I had to do this alone but felt as though I was wrong, even with a classroom full of support. Though therapeutic writing is beneficial for processing emotions, it can re-traumatize, which is what I experienced as I re-visited details in my piece:  “The turning of the doorknob is persistent and more upsetting to hear than anything else. The young naked girl in the mirror backs herself into a nook between the cabinet and towel rack.

Before I knew it, warm tears pushed their way up and out of my eyes. I needed to pause, bend my knees in the chair and self-rock.

“I don’t see it as an act of bravery in the moment but looking back, using judgment to lock myself in was the best thing I could’ve done for myself.”

 I did find a slice of peace knowing that when something bad was looming, intuition and self-care were present.

A few years later, I realized that my written reflection acted as a catalyst that strengthened my voice as I peeled back my trauma even more. I tricked myself into thinking that the bathroom scene was the most difficult layer of the truth, but it was the scene I hadn’t processed that was the most frightening: the beginning. So here I was, in the nook of a local library by the window challenging the damn Jabberwocky again, four years after college. Just as I did the first time I wrote about my Jabberwocky, I shut out the light. The irony of being in a nook, albeit a safe nook this time, did not go unnoticed.

I was not attached to a pool stick or hooded sweatshirt for protection. I only had my mind, my laptop and my iPod for support. Once Microsoft Word opened its blank document, I marched right back into my fear.  “Stop running. This is where I turn and get angry the most; the rawness I never want to type and see.” With ears under headphones, I couldn’t hear the pounding of fingers on the keyboard, but I felt the anger coming through them, leaving my body:

I am cross-legged on the couch. We are one seat width apart when his hand moves up my chest. Soon after that, his fingers wander where they shouldn’t.  Then there’s pressure–very uncomfortable pressure. When I was older I realized it is the same poking and pushing sensation that a woman feels when visiting her gynecologist. I’m sure I’m one of the very few who cry on the exam table when getting a pap smear.”

Each word pushed out in the open was a punch to my Jabberwocky, each paragraph another defeat that I felt less and less wrong about.

 “Sitting on the couch, I internally scream. He shouldn’t be the first person exploring my body, even before I’ve explored it!  My eyes never leave the screen, nor does the rest of my body move; my head remains straight ahead. The characters on Roseanne stand in the kitchen arguing.

I keep watching, though not really seeing.

I paused once and skimmed over what poured out of my body and onto the screen. Dr. Hunter taught us to pay attention to language in our writing because it can tell us how we are doing. For example, writing from a place of observation with questions can help problem solve and comes from a Conscious Voice. Words like should, ever, and judgmental phrases echo what he calls a Parent Voice, while “I don’t care,” wishes and desires echo a Child’s Voice. I noticed where the child in me showed her anger, and yet, writing the scene almost like a journalist did help compartmentalize from a distance, even if only moments after being in the fight with the Jabberwocky. As I finished skimming, I felt present, exhausted, and no longer like prey. I finally took back my home.

While writing has been medicine to transform fear into courage, writing the scenes does not erase them. Being a raw writer means carrying the feathers of truth and the weight of truth. Being a raw writer breaks the mold of what is right to write. 

 Your turn…

  What is your Jabberwocky?

References used:

  1. Hunter, Allan.  The Sanity Manual. New York. Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 2003

BellaBianca Lynn takes her Life List, including riding a Ferris wheel and chasing fireflies, very seriously! Her love for movement and learning follows her constantly–who says you can’t shimmy your shoulders and practice Italian while driving?  Lynn has taken many yoga teacher training courses and is 500-hour certified with a focus on Therapeutic Essentials. She has taught Yin Yoga as well as Yoga for Anxiety and Depression.  Her essays and poetry have appeared in the American Dance Therapy AssociationBelly Dance New England, Boston Seniority, and Eunoia Review. A recipient of the Poetry Award and Freshman Essay Contest from Curry College, she weaves her creative and non-fiction writing into the art of belly dance and yoga practice.  BellaB resides in Massachusetts.  For more of her work visit: https://bellabiancalynn.com/

Photos courtesy of BellaBianca Lynn.

Conversation: Accountability

A picture of a strawberry milkshakeMy seven-year-old grandson, Beckett, knows the name of my book. I don’t remember ever talking about it with him. Maybe he heard a relative asking about my writing pursuits during the holidays. Wherever he heard it, listening to him say it made me feel more accountable than anything else has in months.

We were going through photos on my iPad to distract his five-year-old sister Emerson—who was having what seemed like the worst day of her life—because she found out that Beckett got a milkshake at lunch while she was at preschool. Never mind that we all got frozen yogurt after we picked her up. He had gotten something she hadn’t, and that was just plain wrong.

The photos had a magical effect. The sobs were stifled. She was mesmerized by seeing herself in so many pictures. Backward through time. Watching them shrink. The majority of photos I take are of my grandchildren. Followed by, in order of volume, pictures of Scotland in the summer and photos from other trips. No pictures of food, no selfies.

Once in a while, I grab a photo of something because I’d like to have a copy of it. Sometime in the last few years, someone brought a hand-out to my writing group that they had received at a workshop at San Diego Writers, Ink. It was about query letters. I had taken a picture of it so I could study it later.

Beckett is an advanced reader for his age. I know he was read to from the time he was a baby, but I think the ubiquitous billboards in Los Angeles helped. The world’s largest flash cards.

He saw the headline and asked, “What’s a query letter?”

“It’s a letter you send to someone when you want them to publish your book.”

“Has your book been published? Hair on Fire?”

I felt my face getting red, hearing him say the title of my book.

“No, I haven’t finished it.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t really know why not.”

“Well, you should.” This was ambiguous to me. Should I know why? Or should I finish? You always hear people say you should do things for yourself, not for others. But I want to be who this precious and precocious little boy thinks I am.  

The moment passed, and we kept going on our reverse journey. I have almost 2,000 pictures. There would be more, but I winnow from time to time to avoid having to pay for iCloud storage.

We finally reached the end. The first photo I ever took with my phone was Beckett at about three months, sleeping in a carrier.

“Where am I?” asked Emerson, still sensitive to being left out.

“You weren’t here then.”

“Why not?”

“Because your part of the story hadn’t started yet.”

“Oh.”

They both wandered off after I refused to let them watch YouTube videos on the iPad. I sat there staring at the screen, wondering… when am I going to start to finish my story?

 

headshot of Andrea Moser

Andrea Moser spent 35 years writing for other people and organizations, from elected officials and civic leaders to universities and non-profits. These days, she is animating the characters who inhabit her first novel, Hair on Fire. She is an avid theater-goer, in San Diego and in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she has been attending the annual Fringe Festival for 20 years.

 

Photo Credithttps://pixabay.com/3287788

A Story of Heroes

Book cover for Disturbed in Their NestsI just read a new book that touched my heart, and I’d like to recommend it to you. Disturbed in Their Nests: A Journey From Sudan’s Dinkaland to San Diego’s City Heights by Alphonsion Deng and Judy A. Bernstein (Black Stone Publishing, 2018) is an important and amazing story.

Alphonsion—who goes by the name Alepho—was one of over 3000 Sudan Lost Boys who came to the United States in 2001. Along with thousands of other children, he had literally walked across the African continent. He couldn’t go back home to Sudan because a vicious ethnic war still raged there. Alepho considered himself lucky when he and his brother and cousin were chosen to go to San Diego. They had no idea where San Diego was or what life would be like for them. But anything would be better than life in the refugee camp in Kenya where conditions were worse than harsh with barely enough food to survive.

Judy Bernstein was a writer and homemaker, volunteering with the International Rescue Committee in San Diego. When she was asked to help three young refugees, she thought her task would be to give them a tour of the city—take them to McDonald’s, Sea World and maybe the zoo. She had no idea that for the next twenty years, her life would be tied to theirs, and she would be immersed in helping these young refugees.

Disturbed in Their Nests is, in part, a story about the confrontation between different cultures. Beautifully written in two voices—Alepho’s and Judy’s—the story unfolds from their different perspectives—and their different misunderstandings of the other’s culture. Alepho and his friends had nearly starved on their trek across Africa. But in San Diego, no one had told them what to do with sticks of spaghetti. How were they supposed to eat something like that?

Disturbed in Their Nests is a double adventure story. With flashbacks to their time in Africa, Alepho tells a harrowing tale of their walk and precarious survival. But their adventure in San Diego, with Judy’s mentoring, hard work, and diligent efforts, is also a story of survival—negotiating a new culture, living in a cheap apartment in a dangerous neighborhood, and seeking real jobs for their livelihood.

This book is a follow-up to their award-winning and best-selling earlier book, They Poured Fire On Us: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan. Alepho and Judy have given workshops all over the country to educate Americans about the tragedy and travesty of the Sudan war. Their new book is another important contribution to the literature on refugees. Alepho Deng and Judy Bernstein are true heroes.

At a time when America is cruelly turning its back on refugees, their story shows poignantly why that policy is so very wrong.

A photo of author, Lucy Rose Fischer

 

Lucy Rose Fischer is an author and artist living in Minnesota.  Her most recent book is a whimsical picture book, I’m New at Being Old, which received a Midwest Book Award and an Independent Publishers Gold Award.

Alephonsion Deng is a featured speaker at the San Diego Writers Festival on Saturday, April 13, 2019. For the Festival event schedule, register here.

 

Photos Courtesy of Lucy Rose Fischer