Body My House

How will it be

to lie in the sky

without roof or door  

and wind for an eye

-May Swenson


Here’s a story of what I did today, the whole while with varying degrees of a chronic tension headache, which is how I live most days of my life:

I stay in bed for too long. It’s a Saturday. I have only lived in Richmond for three weeks and I still have no job to speak of. My mother texts me to ask if I still have my wisdom teeth. I write I think I have one left. She’s read something about a man who had his removed and as a result, his migraines improved or maybe disappeared, I don’t know.

I don’t have anywhere I have to be and the truth is, I love lying in bed reading in the mornings for as long as I can because I don’t tend to fall asleep in my book like I do at night. I let the dogs out and Hank and I promptly get back in bed, opening the blinds first to let in natural light. I prop myself up and we read. I slept like shit the night before. Too hot from layers of wool blankets and the air blowing all night. Too stressed from restaurant dreams and the constant running, stumbling, not knowing. Too worried (who worries in their sleep?) about climate change like always and how much power we use, when it will run out. It’s insane. Without coffee, without brushing my teeth, I read. I look at my phone for a bit. The usual stuff. Except the government is shut down. Women’s marches are scheduled all over the country. I read. I notice my headache.

I eventually get up, but I only sort of have to. The boys want to go to the climbing gym. I make a cup of instant coffee, slather wheat toast with peanut butter and honey, and cut an orange into quartered segments like my mother would do. Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me is a little too loud but I leave it. I stand in the kitchen and eat and fuss around which is my usual manner of eating and doing morning coffee stuff. This house is tiny and the kitchen is a little galley and I love pivoting from one counter to the other without much movement. It feels safe and familiar already. We will probably leave this house in a year because it is only a rental, but we won’t leave Richmond. I can’t move anymore. I want this to be home.

I don’t tell people I have headaches. I don’t talk about it much, only to certain people and maybe only in passing. Occasionally I do because I want someone to know something about me that’s intimate and almost taboo. Sometimes it’s just to feel a shred of relief, just in the saying of it. It’s true that sometimes I say it to be comforted. To relieve myself a bit. But you must understand that I never tell people I have headaches in order to incur pity or even sympathy. Quite honestly it’s sort of the opposite that prevents me from mentioning it most of the time. I don’t want suggested remedies or advice or sorrow. I don’t want a million questions about why or where or how often. I don’t want to explain the difference between migraines and tension headaches. I don’t want to talk about the fact that I believe my headaches are caused by emotional pain in my body, a long history of grief and stress held in my muscles, because most people look a little puzzled by that or even roll their eyes a bit.

Still, sometimes I do say it, and sometimes the telling feels good. And I’m writing this now because I realize that I’m changing, I feel a shift in the way I relate to and experience my headaches, in the way I talk about them, or don’t. I realize my silence around them is laced with a complexity of feeling that includes pride, shame, embarrassment, confusion, grief, and plenty more. I realize, with some recent therapy that gifted me true emotional intelligence, that my pain isn’t my fault. And these days I’m feeling really committed to the power of voice and narrative and the capacity women have for sharing the breadth of our experiences, be it traumatic, joyful, curious, unsure, angry, demanding, you name it. I want to hear it. I want to encourage it. I can’t exclude myself from this. I won’t. I will never accept that some stories are worth telling and others aren’t. God who the hell gets to decide such a thing anyway? This week I was lucky enough to take a writing workshop with a local woman who champions story and voice and writing for everyone. She teaches these beautiful classes where everyone writes and everyone shares and she listened to each one of us and then looked us directly in the eye and said supportive and encouraging things about every piece of writing she heard. And we all heard each other. The writing was outrageous in its honesty and emotion. Every piece. My skepticism fell away in an instant. It made me want to forget everything I know about criticism and commentary. It also made me want to listen to others more and stay open. Really open. I knew in those three hours that I was home, that writing could be whatever I want it to be, but it must be shared and it must feel supported. In me, first.

We rock climb today. Walk dogs. Eat sandwiches at the coffee shop. Talk to strangers. Play in the muddy backyard of our little rental house with my brother and his son and my husband and his son and all of the dogs run wild and eat sticks. The sun is warm and the snow is mostly gone. The boys sweat and get dirty and I watch and talk and my brother tells me we have all these dogwood trees in our yard that I didn’t recognize because of the bare branches but god I hope they will bloom in the spring. I want to witness the white blossoms and bury my face in them. I have a headache through all of this, the whole day. I am not in staggering pain and there are moments when I forget it altogether, but it rarely leaves me. You must understand that comparing this pain to the pain other people feel is foolish and impossible. I know others hurt more, and others hurt less. I know it pains my mother deeply to know I feel physical discomfort on a regular basis. She wants to fix it for me, and I understand that’s her instinct. But what if this pain isn’t easily fixable? I have to live with it. I am learning to befriend it. When I refuse pain reliever she chides me and says I don’t know why you want to suffer. Which is a fascinating and complicated question, too. You must understand that the easy and obvious answer is of course I don’t want to suffer. Of course I don’t want to have pain, but my acceptance of it, my surrendering of the fight against it, has been an integral part of my healing. I have learned to acknowledge my pain and even cultivate a curiosity around it that feels less rooted in judgment and fear, and this is less of a cure and more of a balm for me. A sort of antidote that I can’t and don’t necessarily want to explain. Sometimes my silence around it is driven by this internal work, which is just the nature of the thing. But I also know I don’t have to hold it all in and keep quiet. It’s a choice really, and it changes day to day. But underneath that there is also a strange and somewhat addicting identification with one’s pain. I’m not sure if that’s me or not, but I’m also not so foolish to suggest that no one wants to feel pain. I can’t say that for sure, certainly not for other people.

What I do know is that I don’t want to prevent myself from living my life and having a good day like I did today. I had a gorgeous vegan dinner tonight with my cousin and we ate from tiny little plates heaped with hummus and winter slaw and turnips and oyster mushroom and yam and sunchoke pudding. After, I drove the streets slowly so I could peer into restaurant and apartment windows of my new old city and felt at home. Again. Like I had several times today already. I had a headache during most of these moments, and while I don’t feel sorry for myself, I will neither romanticize nor diminish this pain anymore. A long time ago, probably while studying yoga, I learned the phrase: I am not this body, I am not this pain. That’s so damn helpful. And so I’m expanding my thinking now to include silence. I am not my shame, I am not my silence. Sharing story is not self-serving (like I sometimes convince myself). Story doesn’t have to be trauma-filled in order to be shared. Story doesn’t have to be polished, finished, or logical. Story doesn’t have to have a cure or a moral. Story doesn’t have to be exceptional, and it doesn’t have to be interesting to everybody at every moment. I like ordinary stories best. Ordinary bodies in ordinary time, paying attention to what ails us, and what allows us to feel free.

A Reflection

What did you make this year? What did you learn? What big, loud idea took hold of you? What tiny note of truth found its way to your lips?

This year I made more room in my story, which is my life, which is my heart, which is this moment; all the same. In order to make room I had to shift, get rid of some things, allow some new things in. Here, a wave of incredible discomfort. The good stuff. What I’ve been waiting for. I learned that story is both real and unreal. Right now: The wind knocks snow from the branches of trees outside my window, a new window with a view I’ve not yet become familiar. My dog snores in between my legs atop a heavy wool blanket my mother gave me years ago. In the other room my husband sighs. The radio hums. My ears ring and buzz and it’s the loudest thing in this story. All of it real. Immediate. I’ve learned what’s less real are the thoughts that persist—binaries of good/bad, silent judgments of me and my work, of this page, of the relationships I cherish. All of it hinged on fear. I’ve learned to feel it coming on. To speak to it in kind, quiet tones that murmur hey, not today. I’m telling a different story now. Is there a bigger idea than this? Not for me, not right now. My ideas are not so loud these days but they grip me with a force I can’t understand. I am strong and soft. I am a sensitive being. I feel everything. I am not wrong. I am here. I don’t need to know anything about tomorrow or next week. I’ve always been fine. Truth, truth, truth. Tiny notes. Quiet notes.

What is on your  2017 "ta-da!" list?

I don’t know.

That’s the biggest one. That I simply don’t know. Also that I am sad, that my grief is multi-faceted and authentic. That I am happy, too. That I am both, all the time, and so is everyone. I look for it in you, in me. Pulsating spectrum of emotion in the body, skin, face, eyes. There.

What brought you the most joy this year?

Every single day that I look at my dog and watch his belly expand and contract, I feel a rush of joy. When I watch him growl at the wind, at the mailperson. At me when I tease him. For me this is nurture at its best, my one foray into motherhood. My heart is wider now. When Tommy and I laugh, when we make fun of each other and of this life, I feel deep joy. It is enough, I’m beginning to know.

What did you read? What did you write? What did you watch?

I read memoirs and books about memoir and memoir by women. I started a list of these books in January and never finished it. This year I’ll try again. I read op-eds and headlines and novels and self-help and poems. Always poems. I still read too many books at a time. I still don’t finish many of them. I still devour some of them in one day. If you ask me what I want to spend my days with I’ll always say books. And coffee. And a warm blanket. I wrote poems about marriage, I wrote poems as furious letters to the president, I wrote letters and postcards and pages of notes in my computer for a book, for a journal, for this. I wrote blog entries and made them public despite feeling self-conscious and narcissistic and afraid. I wrote emails to students. I wrote text messages to most people I love, and often. I wrote. And I will keep writing. I watched bad movies on the couch with my husband and some good TV shows, too. I watched our dogs play for hours, every week. Mesmerized by their energy. I watched a sea of women in pink hats move in synchronicity toward something they believed in. I watched myself age a bit, fine lines of gray in my hair, fine lines etched more and more into my face. I watched the astonishing mountain ranges in Colorado rise up to my view as I drove west several times a week this fall. I watched them disappear in my rearview as I drove back home.

What has made you feel most alive?

Change. Constant change. Out of control change. Out of control everything. Knowing that.

Moving my whole life and home and family to Colorado and then moving back again 8 months later. A story both real and unreal. Walking across the stage to receive my second degree. Hiking up 12,000 feet in the thinnest air I’ve ever breathed. Hating and loving every single step. Watching my husband move with beauty and fearlessness up the same mountain. He could run laps around me and seeing how alive he is there makes me feel more alive, too.

Paying attention.

Feeling my feelings. Talking about them out loud in therapy, with my dearest friends, to my dog.

My headaches make me feel more alive, my daily frustration, my anger at injustice, my fear for the planet and its dwindling resources, my inability to let go of control, my tiny steps I make toward letting go anyway.

**What are your DESIRES / intentions for the new year 2018?

I’ve been writing to-do lists since I can remember. As a young girl until now. When did I learn to do that? Each list stitched together with the finest efforts to improve, get things done, make neat and clean, feel content. How I love her, still. More.

And I won’t stop making lists.


There is a wellspring of desire in me that I will no longer ignore. Rumi said desire is something like an energy body inside us, informing everything we do. Moving us forward. I feel that. I don’t want to reduce it to what I should do. What I have or haven’t done. Those stories aren’t real. The only real story for me is vulnerability, the ways in which I resist it and embrace it. The ways I feel it in my body, the ways I try not to feel it because of some old story, the ways I honor that, too. The moment in which I share it, and see it in others. The moment when I give up, start over, make peace, fall down in sadness and exhaustion, fall back in giddiness and joy, crumple to the floor, my whole body like any body that breathes and knows little of why.

DAY 30

How long the day. How few memories. Sun shines warm enough to lay in the grass and watch the dogs fight and play. Over and over. Until no more.

DAY 29

I cry in my car. Because the songs are sad. Because the mountains are so huge and beautiful and covered with snow looming beyond the foothills. Because all of these women. Because silence. Because countless men. Things aren't looking up. But I am looking up tonight. It shines like always.

DAY 28

There's a fly in Bruce's hair. I stare at it for half a minute or more. Also there's a crumb. I wonder about the flies in the bar today. How it was 75 and sunny yesterday and today it's freezing. It's almost December. I watch a video online that tells me 200 species a day go extinct. Every day. I keep seeing a picture of fish swarming the stark blue ocean over and over. How there are half the amount of fish there now than before. When's before? I don't know. I don't know how to unsee these videos. These pictures of blue and fish. I don't know how to preserve the ocean and keep it for myself and everybody. I don't know how to not feel mountainous despair. How to not be guilt-ridden and sad. What do you do to make yourself not feel terrible? Or, what do you do to make a difference? Oh, to change. A woman I like sits at the bar and eats 1 slider and 3 deviled eggs. She swats occasionally at a fly near her face, her food. Her lipstick today is darker than before.

DAY 27

Sometimes I see my students' faces and all of their desire and fear and mistrust. They want to say things but they don't. They don't know how good they are. I get down close beside them and say too much. Fill the space. Look at their faces. One looks at me today as if I am telling her things she already knows, or doesn't want to know. I keep talking. I walk away. Today I saw two of them in the hallway and one walked right past me and another looked at me and smiled nervously and I held her gaze for a second to smile back. We don't know how good we are.

DAY 26

So little of what I observe is terrible, grotesque, or even out of the ordinary. To what do I bear witness, and what does it reveal about me? That I only register the mundane? This evening after I finished work a guy at the bar said--Look outside at the light right now, I'm going to go see it. I went out after him and it was deep pink touching down on cars and sidewalks in front of the hotel and lasted like two more minutes. I got in my car and drove to pick up dinner and the sky truly was spectacular. I kept saying to myself--isn't this just like a painting. The clouds really looked like brushstrokes of grayish-pink and they rolled toward the mountains like live currents. I looked away from all the blinding artificial lights on every store and house and kept my gaze upward once I parked. Would I rather this be something awful? Would I rather tell you that I suffered? Would I rather have not seen it at all? But I can only see what I'm awake to. I can't not see the sky tonight.

DAY 25

Not a winter sky, not yet. But a fat toenail of a moon and a slip of cloud in the blue-black night. Clear. Cold. Not all the way winter, not yet. We are still here.

DAY 24

I look at you two sleeping together and it looks like love. A twitch or shudder across the eyelid, the lip. A jerk of the shoulder. Is it restlessness underneath the spell of sleep, or a need to move, to stir, to change. Subterranean desire. You curl toward him; he curls toward you. Man and dog. On the blanket the swirl of a green leaves I trace with my finger. Smell of your skin. Your feet move beneath the sheets like swimming and I wonder how far there is to go.

DAY 23

thanks to the man with the harry potter glasses and his daughter he was so proud of thanks to the bandaid on my finger and for not making a deeper cut thanks for pie and standing outside with Travis while he smoked a cigarette thanks for my friends feeling better thanks for the news not being so terrifying or maybe thanks for not reading too deeply sorry but I can't thanks for my dogs deep snore and his fat belly thanks for breath pretty much that's all the steadiest thing

DAY 22

scanning through my mind's eye for today's image a bowl of halo oranges a pot of simmering cranberries the dogs gnawing on sticks the lack of people in the neighborhood in the green space outside quiet days loud nights a circle of hands around our plates say grace someone says and I repeat the words my grandmother says knowing it is and isn't a prayer clean dishes dirty dishes again again full trash empty trash everything the same and in juxtaposition mundane extraordinary mundane extraordinary domestic global global domestic close one eye open the other what's the difference in the days from one to the next mood heart waving open

DAY 21

drive into the city listening to Dylan's Freewheelin' for the first time in too long still the same gold as ever after the reading I slow cruise up the block past the Denver Rescue Mission and the Catholic Charities and a Jesus Saves neon sign blares its wares I always have a good chuckle at this one but Corrina Corrina saves me instead just in the nick of time

DAY 20

what if life mattering is only a 50/50 chance

or less  meaning half the time this is important and half the time

it isn't  or

it only halfway matters all the time or

tonight I saw two cars driving with only one headlight

one after the other

50/50 light & dark

traveling without fear is how I imagined it

some sort of freedom


DAY 18

nearly every night, the same image: my little black and white dog curled into a letter c in between my legs on top of the gold blanket. ears perked up. breath steady and deep. an occasional whimper, a heavier sigh. as long as I am still he is still. the real sleep of the night is predictable in a different way. these days it's all turmoil. tangled blankets, ringing ears, wild mind. wild. up and down. all of it. how to anchor myself down? smooth the sails? when?

DAY 17

today = a study in rejection

my body rejects medicine health healing

I reject the news for weeks now

another rejection of my poems in my inbox

my own face unrecognizable in the mirror

featureless and searching

reject happiness reject fame reject stamina

the mountains the sun reject me now too

an image persists some adaptable picture

of home

DAY 16

the shape of my own body huddled underneath a pile of blankets. the perfect sphere of a seedless tangerine, network of white veins. discarded cups and mugs of lukewarm water at my feet. sick day. endless day.

DAY 15

not an image, just a sound: the neighbors howl and stomp and slosh their cups and cackle; the dog barks and barks and barks; I'm sandwiched in between.

DAY 14

why do dogs ache for the scent of something dead on their fur?

how shall you name these dried out plants? dusty beetle, elongated tail, crumpled mum, ember, barren arm, flat turf?

how is this to-do list from a year ago different from today's?

why do you concern yourself with it over and over and over?

how big the breath? how awake are you now on this walk, or ever?

DAY 13

morning. a ribbon of pink sky. fleeting fleeting. a row of birds on the street lamp. a ribbon of highway. cawing like jokes. like did you hear the one about? that one.