The Return

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October 6th, 2014, 12:03, CSTC

 

On my way down Steilacoom Boulevard, approaching Western State Hospital and CSTC, I was listening to a podcast about a man who discovered as an adult that his mysterious father was most likely the Zodiac killer that rained horror on the country for decades, torturing and slaughtering dozens of people. His story was inconclusive; the man will never meet his father because he died twenty years ago. The soundtrack of the podcast kicked on as I turned onto the campus: the razor wire winking in the middle distance, the dilapidated cottages that front the place, seemingly abandoned, the drab landscape of insitutionalism. Fat Canadian Geese tried to block my way, like protesters but rather poorly organized. Inside of the school, I knew, were children—children with wild imaginations, bright if sometimes shattered eyes, children with stories to tell and poems to write, about fantasies, about traumas and about hopes. The clank and mutter of staff managing the morning’s crises greeted me at the abandoned front desk; a young man shouted obscenities from a quiet room. There is so much life and love to be celebrated here. I can’t imagine the weight of turning keys all day nor of hearing the deadbolt drop. They will kick walls and scream, many of these children, maybe a few less if we can reach back, down, inward, forward or up for the language that will make violence evaporate. For the words on the page that staunch bleeding in the mind. Another life is possible for these children, but unlike the son of the Zodiac killer, they don’t get to grow up in ignorance. Can we help carve the edges off the awful things they already know? Can we pull those things out of them like tumors?

Jack London Bar: Writing & Healing (& Gratitude)

It was with tremendous trepidation that I descended the staircase into the dark, gritty space of the Jack London Bar (downstairs of the Rialto Room in old town Portland) last night to deliver a “lecture,” a proposition that would have, at many an era in my life, seemed unlikely or downright laughable.  A disco strobe swept the cavernous space and a brilliant young dude named Seth spoke eloquently about the history of mental illness in Oregon.  It was like a combination of a liberal arts symposium and a raucous bender.  But soon enough love and suppor trickled in, in the form of faces old and new–college classmates, activist colleagues, high school homies, and the occasional stranger.   I did my best to speak truth about the experience of writing & healing in my personal and professional life and found that, as I did so, I was weaving myself into a more real and integrated state.  I am deeply grateful to all the love–Lessie, Ben, Alex, Perla, Abel, Larry, Laurel, Paul–and the incredible guidance and support from savvy Mike and smooth Alexis of the Neocom Group.

 

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#clearlynowtherain #launched! @ #EBB

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All due respect to the various kick-ass indie lit stores in Seattle, we all know where the mother ship is—well, you know if you haven’t been living elsewhere and missed the headline that the mother ship is no longer docked in drafty, desolate Pioneer Square and is now a crown jewel in the hipster crown of Capitol Hill.  Yes, I’m talking about Elliott Bay Book Company, the mecca of memoir, the coffee table of coffee table books, the real story of the novel, the palace of poetry, etc.  My good friend Amanda Carr’s parents founded the store some indecent number of years ago (I say indecent only because I just creaked out of my 35th year yesterday and am feeling it), and I don’t know if they knew what they were creating, culturally speaking.  I read at the original EBB in 2006, from my first book, Falling Room, and was daunted and humbled by the proverbial size of the stage I took. 

 

 One might think that seven years later, I’d be less daunted and humbled by taking the stage again, but that wasn’t the case.  The great Benjamin Percy was the last person I saw sit a folding chair in the soft glare of those track lights.  So when I got there Saturday and schlepped my pounds of beer and ice and sausage and cheese and wine through the underground catacombs and into the cavernous and cinematic reading room, I just sat up there, quiet and alone for a few minutes, looking out and trying to channel the poise of Percy—but I was already feeling the churn of emotion that I knew this evening would bring me. I felt incredibly grateful when Emily Holt, my colleague and friend from Pongo Teen Writing arrived and we started sitting that space together. 

 

It is one thing to pack the house for any literary gig (especially on a sunny Solstice eve), but it’s quite another to pack it with people from nearly every realm of my life: childhood homies, my late father’s employee-friends, my grandmother-in-law, my clinical internship instructor, my co-interns, activists and allies from social social justice work, family of blood and choice, kick ass writers of all genres, babies and toddlers and even if a few curious strangers!  And it’s another thing altogether to have all those people uncross their arms and lean in and show not only interest, but deep love and solidarity. 

 

I don’t want to make it sound like this reading was a therapy session, of course.  It was much better than that.  It was the launch of a love story that I’ve carried around carefully for many years.  And it had to happen at Elliott Bay Book Company. 

 

Thanks.

 

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Badges of Hope

Cowlicks and peach fuzz, wilding dreadlocks and casual piercings and sleeves of green script tattoos.  Kids in here wear badges of cool intended to contradict the irremovable signs of their youth, which feel more like scars by the time they’re hunched in Echo Hall with Pongo mentors.  Many say they wish they were older—and why wouldn’t they?  All the liabilities of adulthood have been strapped on them since they were far younger than they are now; hunger for the relative privileges of adulthood is comprehensible.  I want to tell them not to hurry, but it’s too late.  I don’t know how to tell them to flip a U-turn on the interstate.  I want to believe and therefore be able to tell them that there are still carefree times to be had, but it’s a lie that I could only believe if I failed to examine my own life.  A liberal arts college degree and raucous rule-free dormitory are not in many of these kids’ futures.  To try to resuscitate childhood in this kind of dormitory—deadbolts and rubber tables, surveillance cams and plexi-glass—is a joke.  Often, the best we find here is eulogy for childhood.  Inasmuch as eulogy is intended to bring closure, it’s a worthy aim.

 

So this is the context for how I find myself thinking about the presidential election tonight: which candidate is likely to care about the welfare of these kids robbed of their innocence?  Which candidate possesses the empathy to witness these children as something other than statistics?  Which candidate has the ability to cut through fog of stigma around their actions and see the resilience manifest in their survival?  I’m under no illusion that “at-risk youth” or juvenile “justice” is at the forefront of either candidate’s mind anymore than climate change.  But, much like climate change, we can assume that one candidate at least believes that it’s a problem—and, much like climate change, it’s a problem that threatens our future.

WHAT THEY CAN MEAN

 

Once upon a time a story was something that my father used to put me to sleep or my mother used to keep my mind off fatigue on a long hike up the damp throat of a North Cascades trail.  I’m not sure I thought of ET or Star Wars as stories as such, but those, in concert with the limitless world of Narnia and the golden yarns spun by authors like Madeline L’Engle represented escape and liberation from my own world that was cracking under the weight of divorce and discord and other humdrum sorrows.  More than sports, pulpy YA novels with the right measure of gore and fright got me through early adolescence and by the time I was pretending to be too cool to read, I had deciphered my own desire to write stories, something that was unique rather than odd, something I could balance on in the crucible of image that was high school.  If you slid off from an afternoon kegger with a red cup and a spiral notebook and scribbled away by your lonesome, it was decidedly more acceptable than cracking a book of any sort to read.  In college, textbooks shouldered out novels and stories for the most part, but in the brief slices of time between semesters I would devour literature with a stored-up hunger—and I could still find time to pen purple prose poems about heartbreak and the facades that sickened me.  Of course I still knew very little of sorrow, and when I learned, it was writing the stories of loss and enshrining the memories of what was gone in story that saved me from a crevasse that otherwise might have swallowed language entirely.  Specifically, had I not had stories to write about my gone father, I wouldn’t have returned to graduate school after his death.  Specifically, if I hadn’t had a month at the Vermont Studio Center in 2005, I might not have lived much longer after my best friend’s life ended on a cold street. In the first decade of this century, my love for story curdled and turned—on me, or me on it.  I was possessed with the urgency of my fiction, convinced that my life would be spent dashing out novels of searing political critique wrapped in human cloth, publishing them with far-reaching presses and collecting the permission to do nothing else.  As most manuscripts piled up unpublished, despair and humility fought for dominion of my writing life—and that fight has not yet finished.  But something else happened, too.  In truth I’d been wading around in the healing power of storytelling for a long time—both for myself and for my students—but it was uncouth and sometimes improper to make it intentional in the classroom, where the focus was on objective quality and measurable conventions and concluded, usually, with letter grades.  Then I found Pongo Teen Writing.  Through Pongo I learned about the power of alchemy that can happen through poems (which are stories by nearly any measure): from victim to survivor, from shame at what has happened to pride in having lived through it.  And from Pongo the leap into youth therapy was clear, if also daunting.  When I sit with troubled, sorrowful, manic, traumatized but resilient kids in session now, they tell me stories.  And I listen for morals, for holes in the plot, for lack of detail or too much and what either might suggest.  I ask questions and I offer advice for revision; I try to get them to tell a new version of the story, one that leads in the general direction of liberation, even if it’s just a horizon for now.  I don’t tell them that I know what it’s like when an editor steps in tells you’ve missed a great opportunity—that maybe you can keep the frame but have to start from scratch on the content.  I do tell them that the stories we tell ourselves about our lives can mean life or death, liberation or imprisonment.

Under a Sky of Cliché

 

The way this place feels today makes me hate clichés, or at least to resent the people that came up with the cliché first.  It’s a “pressure cooker,” but I couldn’t say that without the quotation marks.  It’s a “powder keg” but, well, ditto.

 

Maybe I can say it this way: the barometric pressure is higher on this side of the cinderblock by a large measure.  For some reason, when conditions stretch taut like this, the staff goes zip-lipped and the youth get even quieter.  I’ve heard it said a lot of times and I’ve seen it played out a few: the “calm before the storm,” which in some cases is also a precarious calm after an interrupted storm (a quelled gang fight; a lightning quick jab to a staff member).

 

One has got to imagine what it’s like to have dozens of teenaged kids with both diagnosed and undiagnosed psychological and emotional disorders, most of whom have never see one another before but some of whom have sworn to kill one another on the outside, where there are choices. Outside, where kids with bleeding wounds can fire their pain into any number of containers: the flat line embrace of a drug, the cathartic spark of a sucker punch, or, even, the soothing presence of a priest, an uncle, a friend.  But in here all outlets are sealed, except for the handful of kids that take the leap and let themselves be frog-marched down to Echo Hall where us soft-edged poets try to get them to expose their vulnerabilities and speak the language of a new strength.

 

This is what I want to say: over this environment of deadbolts and shackles, of closed circuit television and steel doors and proscribed and prescribed movements, a pregnant sky often hangs, past due to drop storm.  That’s why everyone gets quiet and watchful.  There is an inverse relationship between the number of words spoken and the number of times eyes shift.  And here we are, asking for words.  Asking for the real.  Asking for something more than mere communication, for disclosure; asking for a kind of shouted song in the cacophony of silence, the kind that will bring the sun rather than split the purple clouds.

 

It’s a delicate fucking dance.