Residue of Trauma

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“I dream about blood.” That’s how Erin Maynard, Acting President and CEO of PTSD Survivors of America, begins her tragic story, “I Killed a Man and I Want to Die.” In 2008, she unintentionally drove over and killed a pedestrian on the Long Island Expressway. Maynard was heading home from her job as an editorial aide when she felt a “thump” below her car. That “thump” changed her life. That “thump” reverberates throughout her story. Maynard tells it to us straight, bares her soul on the page with stunning courage. Her story is so powerful, and dense, with the residue of trauma – post-traumatic stress disorder, post-traumatic growth, survivor guilt, forgiveness, and identity – that it must be shared. It must be shared so that others can better understand life after trauma.

To learn how Maynard picked up the shards of her shattered life, I encourage you to read her full story in The Spectrum.

Click here for Erin Maynard’s full bio. 

Do you have a personal traumatic story to share? If so, how has it changed you? What can we learn from your experience?

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Glassmusic: A Novel by Rebecca Snow – Review

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In her debut novel, Glassmusic, painterly prose brushes the page in sweeping greens and blues. Weaved throughout that lush 1920’s Norwegian landscape, is the heart of the narrative: A coming of age story in which young Ingrid struggles to come to terms with the sexual assault she witnessed against her sister, Kari.

Ingrid’s blind father, who relies on her to see for him, teachers her to play music on water-filled glasses. Those melodies, along with guiding her father, are what protect her from her secret and ground her through her tumultuous childhood. Her mother, who is jealous that her husband needs Ingrid more than her, looks away from her daughter in disappointment. And her sister, Kari, inflicts her with physical and emotional harm.

Ingrid seeks companionship, and quickly trusts Stefan, a Parisian boy visiting from France. It is this relationship, and their individual interpretations of faith and literature that spur Ingrid to become more aware of the world beyond her own microscopic one. Along with her newfound knowledge, she explores distant fjords, hills, and woods not only to escape the memory of her sister’s assault, but also to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. Is she a protector of secrets and lies or a teller of the truth? As she navigates her way toward awareness, slipping over rocky terrain along the way, she realizes that she needs her family, and that her family needs her. More so, as a reflective older child, she realizes she needs to tell the truth.

In Glassmusic, Snow creates palpable characters rich with universal emotions and conflict: anger, pity, empathy, loyalty, forgiveness, jealousy, and identity.

Ingrid’s father says, “Talking is like music, you must practice. (123).” Perhaps the same can be said for making sense of the unfathomable – it takes practice.

 

Rebecca Snow’s debut novel, Glassmusic, was released from Conundrum Press in November 2014. Her poetry has been published in Blue Moon, Pooled Ink, and was added to the Denver Poetry Map.  She won first place for narrative nonfiction in the 2007 Writers Studio Contest. Her piece was featured in Progenitor. Snow received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana and teaches English at the Community College of Aurora. Originally from Seattle, she lives in Denver, Colorado with her son and enjoys hiking the great Rocky Mountains.

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When The Creative Tide is Out: Guest Post by Patrick Ross

Patrick Ross Photo by Marisa Ross.

I’m excited to introduce my first guest blogger and accomplished writer, Patrick Ross, of Committed: A Memoir of the Artists Road. Patrick and I are fellow alums of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I had the opportunity to read parts of his powerful account of his journey across the United States to engage with creative individuals. But the book is more than about traveling; it’s about identity, and his journey of self-discovery. Starting on page one, Patrick bravely shares his vulnerabilities and demons. In this post, Patrick takes an honest look at what it means to live the life of an artist.

 

“Here’s a tip for artists who are in it for a lifetime. When the tide is in, write. Wake up at two in the morning if you have to and write. But if the tide is out don’t sweat it. That’s when you get your busywork done.” – Flutist and songwriter Steve “Voice of Golden Eagle” Cox, quoted in Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road (p. 124).

Am I an artist who is in it for a lifetime? I’d like to think so. That was a theme of my travel memoir Committed. While on a cross-country trip interviewing artists of every type who had embraced an art-committed life, I found myself inspired to live the same way. It led me to earn an MFA in Writing and to write Committed. But just how committed am I to that life nearly five years after those interviews?

I interviewed Steve “Voice of Golden Eagle Cox” in Memphis, Tennessee. I thought of him at times as I spent the latter half of 2014 writing nothing more creative than short blog posts. No personal essays. No follow-up books. Nothing.

For a time I had a built-in excuse: Committed was published in October, so there was promotion leading up to its release, then more after its release. When promoting yourself as a writer, who has time to actually write? That frenzy of interviews, guest blogs, readings and book-signings largely came to an end. But still I didn’t write. The tide still wasn’t in.

Steve’s wisdom on the tide of creativity struck me the day he shared it with me, and so it was one of the small morsels from hundreds of hours of interviews that made it into Committed. But at the time I also sensed a lack of drive in Steve. He kept saying he was “open to possibility,” to write more music, to return to the road, to be creative.

I certainly didn’t see myself as superior to him in that scene, as my internal monologue suggests: “I am open right now to possibility in the same way a defeated prey is open to a predator’s jaws. It is an openness grounded in passivity (p. 124).” But as I progressed on my road trip, and became more open to possibility myself, I then found myself driven to seize that possibility.

Near the end of that road trip I interviewed another songwriter, radio DJ Rochelle Smith. Sitting in her Boise, Idaho, studio, she told me it had been a while since she had done any solo performing. “I guess I’m looking for that next project. I’m not sure what is coming, but I feel something is (p. 218).” She had earlier told me that she agreed to the interview because she had asked the universe if she should, and it had said yes. In Committed, I connect her in my mind with my Memphis interview:

“She’s presumably asked the universe and is waiting for an answer. I think again of Steve Cox, the Voice of Golden Eagle. He said the universe had proclaimed to him that a wondrous new path would be coming soon, and that he’d be ready when it arrived. But what if you don’t have the patience to wait? What if you’ve cleared your way through the tumbleweeds, the dried hulks of your past, and are anxious to drive forward (p. 218)?”

As I read this passage now I feel guilty, that I’m somehow suggesting that Steve and Rochelle now longer had any wisdom to offer me, that I’m ready to move forward and leave them with their passivity.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing Committed was telling the story as true as I could, including revealing the impressions that were being formed in me as I met with these artists who were so generous with their time and their stories. One reviewer of Committed, not surprisingly a professional writer, picked up on this:

“I was also grateful for the absence of gloss that might infect other essays on art. The artists Ross interviews in their own homes and studios are presented without makeup, so to speak. I could smell the cat litter, the coffee brewing in the kitchen, and the musty wardrobes. I saw dust bunnies beneath the sofa and front steps in need of repair. And so when Patrick was swept up in a sweeter aura that some artists exuded, I understood that here was an artist making a special impression upon the author (Amazon.com review by novelist P.J. Reece of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road).”

I have continued to grow since that 2010 trip. What I know now is that I was in no position to judge these two musicians for any perceived passivity. I’d add that both Steve and Rochelle were artists that made a special impression on me; that’s why they receive a disproportionate amount of attention in the book as I attempted to share their “sweeter aura” with my readers.

So this winter has proven to be a dry one creatively. There has been no tide because the water has frozen over. At times I have longed for even the hint of possibility, the notion that perhaps the universe had something waiting for me. On far too many days the story of my art-committed life seemed written in the past tense.

You can’t force the tide to come in. But you can be ready for it when it arrives. And in the last three weeks or so, some cracks have formed in the ice. A bit of cold water has stealthily streamed onto shore. I’ve seized on those drops, writing a few pages of choppy, rough prose for my next book. I’m refusing to judge its quality right now, but instead just reveling in the fact that I am, apparently, still a creative writer living an art-committed life.

There is much defrosting still to do. This winter has been the most brutal for me emotionally in nearly a decade. But I understand that Steve “Voice of Golden Eagle” Cox was not just wise in understanding that creativity is a tide, but that we have to remain open to possibility. You can’t seize something that isn’t there, but you can be ready for it when it arrives.

 

Patrick Ross is a professional storyteller. He works by day as a speechwriter and communications advisor in the Obama Administration while finding time to teach creative writing online with The Loft Literary Center. The author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road, he has an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Learn more at http://www.patrick-ross.com.

 

 

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Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.

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This past weekend, in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr, I attended a celebration in his honor at a local Unitarian church, where I was graced with the presence of Nontombi Naomi Tutu. In light of the recent deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York City, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, this event could not have come at a better time. People clapped and shouted “Right on!” as Tutu reminded us, in her mesmerizingly charismatic voice, “humanity is indivisible.”  She repeated this phrase again and again throughout her thirty-minute speech. She brought her own fears to the podium: because her son is seventeen, she said she doesn’t worry that he’ll go out and get into trouble; she worries what will happen to him because of the color of his skin. How many white parents worry that their sons will get shot because of the color of their skin?  Isn’t it correct to say that the black community is still not free, even though slavery ended one hundred fifty years ago in 1865?  They are not free in the sense that they must look both ways with extra caution when leaving the house. Unlike white people, especially white males, black people must work, often to no avail, toward privileged status. They earn less income than their white counterparts. Thirty- percent of black youth are unemployed (www.bloomberg.com/bernie-sanders). Tutu cautioned us, “Privilege costs you your humanity.” I gathered that she meant unearned privilege, as it makes us less aware, less empathetic perhaps. If humanity is indivisible then, as Tutu says, “We can only be free if we are all free.”

Before I left, I had the opportunity to thank Tutu for traveling to Vermont on a drab January day, for leaving me with vital words to chew on: “Injustice oppresses the oppressor at the same time it oppresses the oppressed.”

By the way, I even had the opportunity to hug her. She hugged me back and said, “I like hugs.”

What did you do on Martin Luther King Day that speaks to the indivisibility of humanity? (Indulging in sales does not count).

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Walking Toward Understanding: A Review of the Movie Wild

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“I’m sorry you have to walk a thousand miles just to …” Cheryl Strayed’s ex-husband, Paul, tells her. But “just to” what? Early in Wild, Strayed finishes the sentence for her ex-husband: “Why do I have to walk a thousand miles?”

At mile one, Strayed is not sure why. She’s not even sure at mile eight, twenty-eight, or thirty-six. She lumbers around sharp curves and up and down rugged terrain in order to find the answer, or answers. Strayed’s father was an abusive alcoholic. Her mother, whom she calls “the love of my life,” died of cancer at forty-five. Strayed sought refuge in heroin, and sex with multiple partners, which is what led to the demise of her marriage. She finds the answers to the why part of her hike only at mile one thousand. Strayed hikes toward an understanding of her tumultuous life that seduced her into the woods. Much like how the memoir is structured, the movie depicts both her physical and emotional journeys, the present and past paralleling one another the entire one thousand miles. Of course, we can’t help but lumber along with her.

Wild is not only about Strayed’s yen to find the answers as to why she chose to venture into “wild” territory. It’s about identity, the body, forgiveness. Several tropes represent these themes: the heavy weight of her backpack on her shoulders and back calls to mind the burden of her guilt for past wrongs. The bruises she is left with remind us of the pain of her present, and past, life. Lifting herself up under the weight of the pack, then again when she slips in a river signifies perseverance. The pruning of the pack partway through her trek can be likened to the shedding of her guilt.

The sex scenes reveal Strayed’s confusion: she conflates sex, her body, with worthiness. When a reporter pulls his car over to the side of the road – Strayed is hoping to catch a ride – he interviews her for an article and calls her a hobo. Strayed is quick to clarify that she is not a hobo, that she’s simply hiking the PCT. But she has no place to call home, no anchor, no words to describe who she is. Strayed is not a mother or a wife, labels her mother once assigned to herself.

A series of metaphorical purges (guilt purges) take place: when strayed vomits after a night of drinking with other hikers, when she erases her ex-husband’s name from the sand, and when she finally breaks down sobbing, and says, “I miss you Mom.”

I could share more, but if you have yet to see Wild, or read the book, I don’t want to spoil the ninety-four day hike for you – the one hundred degree afternoons, the sweaty silences, the blue nights and sun-bleached mornings.

So, lace up your hiking boots, strap on your backpack, and join Cheryl Strayed at the head of the PCT.

 

Wild Director: Jean-Marc Vallee. Staring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, and Gabby Hoffman.

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What Does Home Mean to You?

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A couple months ago, I trudged through the thick woods five miles from where I live, in search of homeless individuals. As part of a campaign to end homelessness in Vermont, I volunteered to find people willing to answer survey questions to identify those at high risk for dying on the streets. I had driven past the woods numerous times, numb to the homeless community surviving in the dark drizzle, lost in my small world – what should I make for dinner tonight? Salmon or Lasagna? Should I buy that new couch on sale? I really should go to the gym today. But as I stepped closer to a campsite with a one-person tent and a sagging blue tarp for a roof, my fortune on the other side of the murk seemed far away and inconsequential.

I thought about the last question on the survey: What does home mean to you? Before entering the woods, I had not spent much time, if any, examining that question. But, now, with the sagging tarp and the empty tent as real as the bone-aching cold, I could not avoid it. Home: warmth, privacy, a front door that locks. A comfortable bed.

I did not find anyone in the encampment, so I did not have the opportunity to ask the question. I headed downtown to continue my search. A mid-twenty something guy, wearing a stained sweatshirt and rubbing his hands together to stay worm, was sitting on a bench. I walked up to him and asked if he was homeless and would he be willing to answer some questions that were designed to help him. “Sure,” he said and invited me to sit next to him.

I asked him questions about his health, his interactions with the police, if he had been beaten up or threatened by others, if he received any subsidies. Then, “What does home mean to you?”

“A pillow to lay my head on.”

We gave each other a nod, as if we understood one another.

But his answer still resides in my consciousness, so much so that I am working on an essay about my experience. As I write this, though, I wonder if home is a place in which we are inextricably linked, a place that represents our unique identities. Your scent planted in your pillow. Your dreams contained in your pillow.

If you have not had the opportunity to speak to someone who is homeless about what it’s like for them to survive on the streets, or ask them what home means to them, I urge you to watch the film Without a Home. “Growing up in Los Angeles, a city with a homeless population that exceeds 90,000,” filmmaker, Rachel Fleisher, fulfills her desire to understand the homeless community in Los Angeles by spending four years connecting with the lives of six homeless individuals. http://www.withoutahomefilm.com/about-the-film

I assure you, the film will change your perception of homeless individuals.

So, I leave you with two questions to consider on this Christmas holiday: what does home mean to you? How does your home speak to your identity?

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