Threshold

At twenty I stood
Upon the threshold
To my life
And I thought
Well, maybe next year.

At thirty I stood
Upon the threshold
To my life
And I thought
Did I leave the stove on?

At fourty I stood
Upon the threshold
To my life
And I thought
I should stay, for Dad.

At fifty I stood
Upon the threshold
To my life
And I thought.

Raindrop

Heavy raindrops fall
Splashing on my glasses
Blinding me to all.

Michael takes away
The lenses that warp my sight
With a tender kiss.

Giving me shelter
From the chaos of my past
I cling to his strength

His oak to my ivy.
His sun to my rain.

Gabby Petito – Another Lost

Gabby Petito

The video of the stop in Moab Utah.
Fair warning – It is hard to watch.

I heard the news this morning about Gabby Petito as I checked my feeds. The confirmation of my worst fears was there, displayed on the screen.

I heard there was a video of the interaction with law enforcement in Utah. I had avoided it until now. But now I needed to see it. I thought it was necessary – though, at the time, I couldn’t put ‘why’ into words.

Watching it reminded me so much of my own past with domestic and relational violence. The images hit close to home – the reverberation shaking loose forgotten things. In those forgotten images I pieced together the ‘why’.

#metoo

I suddenly appreciated anew that I survived. That I escaped. I saw again how close I had skirted danger. I celebrated the ones I helped get out and I cried for the ones that died. And I was reminded of one gold brick put in a friend’s wall with his name on it. A figurative gold brick, but nonetheless one where we all paid a very high price.

I remembered something I had believed long ago, and I remembered how my experience changed me. So I’m going to say something no one is going to like to hear, and then I’ll tell my story.

I believe everyone needs to experience that powerlessness of being the victim of domestic violence.

I’ll soften that statement and say – ok, maybe not everyone. Maybe there are people out there who can understand that position without having lived it, but most people can’t.

I didn’t. I didn’t understand at all.

I grew up in a house that was poisoned. I won’t go into the particulars of that today, but I will describe what those years made me.

I was strong. I was stoic. I needed no one. I didn’t feel pain, not physical, not emotional, not mental. I never needed help. I was independent. I was hyperaware of everything. I knew my exits. And I knew to never admit fear or weakness because that was blood in the water.

This was me at 14, 16, 18 and on. So in those years when I heard of domestic abuse I was incredulous, even indignant. The lack of agency on the part of these women, the stuff they endured. How could they?

I didn’t understand. I couldn’t understand.

I thought ‘I would have left.’ I would have got up and walked out. I would have, I would have…

Later, as I emerged into the world from the claustrophobic circles of high school I was convinced that every person was like my family, or like the evil portrayed on television, or found in the newspapers that I made myself a promise. If anyone ever struck me out of anger I would leave. There would be no second chance. There would be no reconciliation. It would be over and I would be gone.

So, why didn’t these women leave? I would.
I still didn’t understand.
And when I made this declaration on the first date – as was my practice – I saw very few second dates. As a matter of fact – the only second dates I had were with the men who would turn into my abusers.

Funny that.

What I didn’t know at the time – although I lived it every minute of my life – was that I wanted a rescuer. I wanted someone to come in and sweep me up in a romantic embrace, promise to never abandon me, and save me from my past. I wanted to be rescued from my life so badly that to someone abusive I must have looked like a neon sign.

And when my rescuers came I couldn’t see anything other than the ‘good’ that they presented at first. I ignored warnings from friends. My father knew – but he didn’t say anything – that’s a different story. These men became my rescuers – my romantic partner, my tormentor, my abuser.

I couldn’t reconcile the two realities. I was primed to believe that something was wrong with me. I believed that somehow I earned the disdain, the silence, the taunts, the threats. After all explosive violence was the legacy of my family – so, at least there wasn’t that.

Somewhere along the way that protective cocoon that he formed around me started to smother. I was isolated. Our finances were combined, we lived together. How could I leave? I couldn’t hurt him. He didn’t mean to hurt me.

Somewhere in those years, I began to understand why women (or men) don’t ‘just leave’ an abusive relationship. There are lives – jobs, obligations, a thousand little ties that connect you to where you are physically, mentally, and emotionally.

If you sever one thread there are still the other thousand to draw you back again and again.

And make no mistake those who would abuse another become skilled in playing their victim like an instrument. They are able to draw out any emotion they wish. To them, you are part toy, part safety blanket, part mirror, part captive audience.

My abuser had a distinct pattern that he moved his victims through. I stuck around long enough that not only did I get to see all the roles he shoved his partners into, I played those roles myself. When I saw the entire tableau, I helped the women he was grooming to leave before they were caught in the pernicious cycle. And they, in turn, helped me to leave.

Let me emphasize I was never struck. I don’t know if that is because of my declaration at the beginning or if I just got out in time. I suspect the latter. But, even if I was never physically hurt, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t wounded by the time I left.

Those years in the crazy-making, gaslighting, emotionally battering world stripped me of so much. When I finally fled I was a fraction of myself. And after you escape there is shame, and anger at yourself and them. There is the world not able to understand how you could leave someone ‘so nice’. There is a whole new landscape to navigate. And you start on your knees. Or, at least, I did.

But, I came away from those years with a new understanding, new compassion for those who live with violence. It is not something you can just drop and walk away from. You fight your way out of it. You fight to reclaim yourself. And I finally understood that leaving wasn’t the end. It was just the beginning.

Poetry Battle: Bliss

The prompt and the week that it is attached to sometimes are not in sync. This is the situation reflected in this entry to the poetry battle. The prompt was : Bliss.

The word repels me.
Turned its back on me.
So I turn away in turn.
Sore.
Ignored
And bruised.
It denies me its presence
So I deny its existence.
I will be
Barren stone
To being a fool
Waiting
Longer
Longing
For rain
To bloom.

The Things We Keep

Book reviews Cover The Things We Keep by Balko

The Things We Keep, the premier novel of Ms. Julee Balko, is a story about grief, both that which we let go and that which we keep. The thread of grieving carries the story from far before we meet Serena to the final resolution of her own pain. As the reader progresses through the layers of understanding Ms. Balko reveals how grief can poison a family.

The Things We Keep begins with one of the little absurdities that follow a death in the family. Serena is swamped, as are all survivors, with the photos and tchotchkes that carried meaning for her mother. Those items now missing the memory that made them precious become part of the sea of ‘stuff’ that accompanies death.

While alive those maddening quirks of our families are concealed in pantries – they aren’t ours to deal with. After a person’s death – suddenly all those quirks become our property and our problem. When the story opened with Serena dealing with her mother’s cans of beets I immediately understood where she was.

And seriously, what do you do with 53 cans of beets?
Or, in my case, 32 loaf pans?

Book reviews Cover The Things We Keep by Balko
The cover of The Things We Keep Book Reviews and Quote – “Family complexity told with honest simplicity.”

Death, the great equalizer, is also the great reorganizer. In the wake of death within a family, there is an inevitable reshuffling of roles, of emotions, of perceptions, and of truths.

Compounding her grief, for Serena, was the question of why? Why had there been such coldness towards her from her mother? Why had a chasm formed between them?

The loss of her mother comes with both the loss of her opportunity for resolution and a new chance for answers. Although Serena could no longer ask her mother for the reasons, death finally broke the grip of her mother’s choice to hide the truth.

The revelations tumble out as layer upon layer of false memory is peeled away. With the final exposure of the original loss which started the chain of losses throughout the family comes freedom for everyone. The heavy warping burden of grief is finally lifted and the healing of an old wound can begin.

Ms. Balko captures grief with all its facets. She portrays all of the exhausting, frustrating, maddening minefield of emotions that comprise grief, both your own and everyone else’s, with heartbreaking honesty.

The prose is clear and painfully honest. Her words were perfectly pitched for this story of difficult relations and complex family dynamics. Lines of flowery prose would have stifled the impact by dressing it in too much perfume.

As always with grief and secrets, you need to explore down to the roots before you can let go and finally heal.

The Things We Keep is, in short, a complex story told with honest simplicity.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Healing the Invisible

There is an event in the writing world called #PitMad. It is a Twitter event with a specialized hashtag, #PitMad in this case, where writers can pitch their novels to agents. It’s a bit like Carnivale crossed with Bedlam.

These events have really taken off in the past couple of years. From initially a few hundred pitches over the day agents and publishers can now be bombarded with thousands of pitches an hour. How they wade through all that, I have no idea.

How you stand out as a writer is even harder.

This is where my Complex PTSD enters the picture.

For someone who has grown up in an environment where they were in essence ‘invisible’ learning how to be seen, and heard, and noticed is an exercise in something not only new, but frightening in cases. If, like me, your home was dysfunctional with explosive anger you might also have learned that being unseen was safer. I learned early that it was better to be the child that didn’t need, or want, or ask.

I learned that lesson so well, so many times that I even made up a little chatechism that I recited every night.

Don’t Ask – You’ll be denied.
Don’t Rely – You’ll be disappointed.
Don’t Trust – You’ll be betrayed.

By the time I was 13 I had carved a reminder of this into my arm so I would never forget it again. I still have those scars fourty years later.

But, I’m trying not to live by those rules any more. Trying. The healing doesn’t always go smoothly, or in a straight line. Think of it more like a mental health cha-cha. Sometimes you go forward, sometimes you go back. You get the idea.

To tie these two things together – PitMad and CPTSD recovery – think of it as peeling off layers and layers of habitual camoflague. Rule one of PitMad is if you want to ‘win’ an agents attention via the event – you have to enter. You must put yourself out there. An agent is not going to come knocking on your door.

Image by 愚木混株 Cdd20 from Pixabay : Words by MStewart

Participation, putting myself ‘out there’, that means making an active attempt to be seen. That idea just registers in my core as pure insanity.

Be Seen. NO! That’s when ‘bad things’ happen. You get ignored or hurt when you are seen.

Don’t touch it! Just, put the idea down, and slowly step away.

One day you finally figure “Meh, I’ll try it.” So, you do. And you hear the worst thing you could. SILENCE.

Why is silence the worst? When in a situation like PitMad it could mean –

  • The agent just isn’t looking for a fantasy book about a mentally challenged heroine.
  • The agent blinked when your pitch scrolled by.
  • They stepped away for a minute (they’re human, too)
  • Their dog farted and they had to clear the room.
  • They already have a book that is a fantasy about a mentally challenged heroine.

Who knows? There are literally millions of reasons that no one put a little red heart next to your entry. And the competition is stiff. Thousands of entries for all kinds of books scroll by during the day. There is not enough time to respond to them all.

But, though my rational brain knows this, my emotions tie themselves into knots and I’m that small, inconsequential, invisible girl again. Being back in that place makes me wonder if I ever left it at all. Maybe that invisibility is permanent? Perhaps there is nothing I can do to be seen or heard. I will forever be shouting into the void. And, even there, drowned out by millions of others. Never to be more than a dull anonymous speck among stars.

Ouch.

After a few tries you wonder if the voices of the CPTSD are right. You fear you never will be ‘visible’.Part of you contracts with the pain of the idea. But, there is a tiny voice within undulled by all the abuses and fear that whispers – “Try.”

That seed, our original and true self is the one we must nourish.

So, rest when you must. When you can, move on; sure in the knowledge that the Universe sees you.

Intense Transformation

Cover of Intense Transformation by Matthews

This little book is rather like a HIIT workout itself. Short, intense, sometimes a challenge, but in the end, it is worth the work.

For those that are not familiar with the term, H.I.I.T. stands for High-Intensity Interval Training. Many programs over the years have followed the HIIT principles. Among them, Crossfit, P90X, Tabata, and interval training all have connections to the core idea of HIIT.

Intense Transformation
by Paul W. Matthews

I was happy to see the author spend time on the benefits outside of sheer physicality. There is a component of HIIT that includes body awareness, mindfulness, intention, and breathing. He also hits on the commensurate nature of HIIT and Yogic practice.

He emphasizes the use of mindfulness in HIIT workouts and the value of precision in movement over just throwing out a load of badly formed reps. This gave me a great deal of hope as I was reading. His emphasis on bettering your own performance is exactly where it needs to be.

Instead of the manifesto, I was kind of thinking I would see, Mr. Matthews seems well-read in the current state of sport research. He uses science to back up his writing, another feature I enjoyed.

Initially, I was afraid I was picking up a dude-bro-type training manual. While he is positive, and ever encouraging the author is also well-grounded in science, mindfulness, and practicality.

I am motivated to go dust off my kettlebell.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Ta Le – Book 1: Knowledge

Cover of Ta Le by Yessoh

I picked up the novel of Yessoh G.D. entitled “Ta Le” because I wanted to experience a culture that was not my own. I find myself torn about leaving this review because my background is not African and I’m wondering if I am missing something, or if I’m taking something for granted that is not applicable.

Either way, I’m going to plunge ahead and leave my honest review. I will leave it up to the reader to decide if I have encapsulated the novel with accuracy and fairness. So, let’s begin.

Cover of Ta Le by Yessoh
Cover of TA LE by Yessoh

We follow two main storylines in the novel. The first is a government operation involving a young analyst drawn into affairs far above his pay grade. After the assassination of an important global figure, Kobenan is tapped to help solve the mystery of this death beside the mysterious leader of the government-based S-cell. The second storyline is of Joel a young man in the city who finds his familiar world unraveling at an alarming speed. In one evening he is orphaned and his sister is spirited away by creatures he has always seen, but never understood. With this act of violence, he is swept into a world of African lore, which appears to be preparing for war.

These two stories weave together through a convoluted series of events that introduces Kobenan and Joel to the unknown world of spirits and djinn that surrounds them. Powerful beings have come into the world and they are being manipulated and sought by a powerful magician who seems bent on the destruction of the current world. A nice twist arrives at the end when we discover — sorry, just can’t do that to you.

But, suffice it to say – I didn’t see them coming. That string of sudden revelations was a pleasant surprise. Overall, I found the pacing was good and the characters have so much more to give.

Now to the part of the story where I had problems. There were moments when through the voice of the narrator the modern world could fall away. I found myself immersed in a dark night on a vast savannah with only the comforting light of a campfire, the figure of a storyteller, and the story.

These moments were wonderful and engrossing and rare. The problem I had was that they were also invariably interrupted. As a reader I found myself confronted with a harsh flip back to modern times. Don’t mistake me. This wasn’t because of the mention of suits, or ties, or watches, or SUVs. The presence of modern items was not the problem. The jolts came from a sudden trip in style or the intrusion of modern language.

When the author draws the reader into the world of lore and djinn, and the ancestors it is truly a magical transformation. I wanted to stay there. My disappointment was that in the end, my time in those wild and untamed realms was all too brief.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Dark Apprentice

Book Review Cover of Dark Apprentice by Val Neil

Wow, I really dislike Nikolai Fedorov.

I know this guy. He is the guy who smirks when they think you can’t see. He is the guy convinced of their own superiority.

From the first page to the last Nikolai, the main character, is both protagonist and antagonist in his own story. He undoes himself at every turn. And, by the end, he has learned absolutely nothing, grown not one hair, and is still the conniving creature he was at the beginning.

Some readers might argue that Nikolai did “change” by the final scene. Nope. Look again. The only change was that he moved his teacher from his mental list of adversaries to his list of allies.

That is not growth. That is merely rearranging his opinion on someone’s usefulness to him.

So, why did I stick with the novel to the end? Good question. I’ll admit – I put it down twice and walked away. I think the thing that drew me back was a simple need to finish the thing so I could get it out of my head. And, because I think I know what Nikolai is hiding under all that calculating cunning. So, back I went.

Allow me to insert a note here: My degrees are in Soviet and E. European studies. My mother is a survivor of WWII. I have spent many hours speaking with people about the sieges of Leningrad and of Stalingrad. I have a well developed idea of just how grim a childhood was in one of those, or other Nazi occupied areas of the Soviet Union.

It makes sense that Nikolai would see the world as one brutal conflict to win – at all cost. So, on one hand I despise what he is and, on the other, I can pity him.

The other major player in the story is the immortal mage Medea. She takes Nikolai as an apprentice against all her better instincts. She has his measure and yet still takes on a power seeking, lying, cheating psychopath.

Her decision is explained late in the story. My response to the revelation was — And your best solution was to teach him? Uhm. Yeah. Medea may be immortal, but I have serious problems with her judgement. This is not to say she is a paragon. She obviously still has a few problems of her own to work out.

As far as the technical side of things went, the writing was clear and the story moved along. But, the emotional depth of the characters left me wanting something more. I didn’t so much make an emotional connection with the characters as I had an emotional reaction to them.

So, would I call this my usual “brain popcorn”? No. It’s more like candy-corn, you either like it or loathe it. This is the first in a series – Will I read book #2? At this instant, I don’t know if I’m willing to allow Nikolai to take up any more of my time.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Steady

Book Review Cover of Steady: Keeping Calm in a World Gone Viral by Johal

Steady: A Guide to Better Mental Health Through and Beyond the Coronavirus Pandemic by Dr. Sarb Johal is one of those books I wish everyone would read.

80% of the people around the globe would find some idea or thought within these pages that would help explain the currently fluid world we find ourselves within. They would find an understanding professional who clearly lays out the current causes of anxiety at every level from personal to global.

Dr. Johal is imminently well qualified to write this touchstone for the world. He has worked with governments and international organizations, to develop psychosocial responses for over a decade. Among the crises he has helped guide populations through is the H1N1 pandemic.

He knows his stuff.

The prose is clear and approachable. The concepts are clearly presented and there is ample reference to resources for those, like myself, who are inclined to look at the nuts and bolts of research.

It is, overall, a calming and reassuring look at the changing social landscape caused by the COVID pandemic. Dr. Johal offers understanding and practical approaches to the mental stresses that it seems everyone is facing. He doesn’t offer rainbows, but he is offering umbrellas to help us make it through the current series of crises.

One thing I found of particular note is his refusal to advocate for the ‘normal’. Quite rightly Dr. Johal reminds the reader that every situation is fluid, even if it is familiar. He doesn’t give any promises, but he does make emerging from the pandemic seem possible.

— Oh, and that other 20% or so, those are the folks who live with long term trauma. And while we may know a good bit about anxiety and uncertainty, we would do well to read the book, too. Because, sometimes we need to remember that not everyone is as programmed to flourish in the shifting unknown.

(And no, I don’t know if it really is a 80/20 split – it’s a metaphor.)

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.