the thing with feathers

I think we had been working together for about six months, and I had mostly been feeling better. But suddenly it was fall, and I was feeling apocalyptically bad. I couldn’t stop crying.

“This is what healing looks like,” said E, very gently.

I kept crying. A great sodden pile of tissues filled up the wastebasket between us. At some point I noticed that she was smiling. “Why?” I asked. “Why are you smiling like that, when I’m so miserable?”

“My heart is singing,” she said. She was looking at me like I was a very new baby who had just done something totally amazing, like maybe unleashed a tiny little belch.

I cried all the way home. When I got home, I got in the shower to avoid having to explain to Dave why I was crying. I couldn’t explain it. It just kept happening. So I cried and cried and cried in the shower. I wondered how I was ever going to be able to stop. And then I remembered E telling me that her heart was singing.

“Would it sound like a robin?” a voice in my head wondered. I was so surprised by the thought, which didn’t even seem to be mine, that I stopped crying. And I started thinking about my next sculpture.


I always knew that someday I would make one with a bird inside it. I didn’t know until that moment that the bird would be E’s heart.

Before I placed it in its cage, I took it to her office to show it to her. She held it and fussed over it for a long time. It was her turn to cry, and my turn to grin until my face almost fell off.

Everything she said about it was something I might have said about her. It might have been the best moment I’ll ever have as an artist.

the light inside the dark

More moths. Not every day, but at least once a week. I’ve taken to leaving the light on in this lady 24/7, because the moths like the dark.


It occurred to me recently that I hadn’t photographed her with the light on since last year’s great moth-proofing effort. So there she is: several layers of acrylic fabric stiffener over felted wool, over doilies crocheted from fingering-weight yarn, over rusty wire, with an 11-watt compact fluorescent lightbulb hanging in the middle. More than the sum of her parts (as we all are).

I just finished reading The Light Inside the Dark by John Tarrant, and I’m feeling inarticulate. I had to take a break from the group I was reading it with. They weren’t having any of the seventeen conversations I wanted to have, and I felt unable to start the conversations myself.

Maybe I already said a lot of what I could say about that book anyway, before I even read it, with this sculpture.

Maybe words are overrated.

Recently I seem to have become the kind of person who’ll dance in public, and not necessarily in a polite and sedate way. “With some people, you can tell they’re holding back,” someone said to me last night, after the music had stopped and we were getting ready to go home. “But not you.” Old Me would have been deeply embarrassed. New Me shrugs and says maybe I’m old enough to start experiencing the Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck.

Tarrant says:

We need the patience to bless even our weakness, this odd weakness that seems to come not when we are helpless, as it does in the darkest night, but when we are full of strength and rising.

Last time I saw E, I cried for half an hour before I was able to say anything. She said she respected my bravery. “You’re the only person in the world who ever says anything like that to me,” I complained. “What the fuck is wrong with you? What are we turning me into? How am I supposed to be in the world like this?”

“I love you too,” she said. I hated her so much in that moment.

I am a hot mess, but not so most people would notice. I put on my boots and drive my car to the supermarket or the bank or the hardware store. I stand up straight and I smile, and it’s not an act because I really do feel pretty good a lot of the time.

And I also feel shitty and toxic, and I wish I could explain how it’s possible for the two states – light and dark – to exist at the same time and in such close proximity, and not cause some sort of explosion.

I feel like I outgrew the loneliness I was born with, and traded it in for a bigger loneliness. I’m constantly tripping over its hem and discovering odd things in its pockets: a blue bug, a red car, a long-forgotten granola bar, the sound your mother made when your head popped out of her.

still waiting

It was about this time of year, and I was having thoughts about the darkness and the gradual return of light. I was trying to explain them to N. “It’s getting lighter,” I said, “but nothing’s really changed yet. We’re still waiting.”

“Where is God in all this?” she asked (she was a Presbyterian minister).

I thought about it for a minute. “God is small,” I said, “and needs close attention.”

A few months later, I told her I felt like I had a wire cage inside of me. She looked at me like I had two heads, so I made a sculpture for her as a visual aid. It would be the first of a series, but I didn’t know that yet. The sculpture was human scale, too large to bring to her office, so I brought her a photo of it.

what a healthy girl — and such plentiful organs! (2004)

N said she thought I would be better off working with someone else.

Years later, E and I stood in my studio in front of the actual sculpture and I told her that story. “How was that for you?” she asked.

I said it had been a relief. We had been stuck for a long time. The sculpture showed me the way out.

We stood next to each other, looking at it, and I felt the beginning of a sort of light returning to my body. It had been gone so long I had forgotten it was even missing. Nothing had changed yet, but something was different.

Merry Christmas, my invisible friends. I wish you just enough light to see the next step. It turns out that’s all you need.

in the attic

When we moved into this house sixteen years ago, I was too depressed to deal with most of the boxes of household stuff. I unpacked the bare necessities and stashed the rest in the attic, where I ignored it for over a decade.

“There’s a reason for that,” says the little virtual E who lives in my head.

“Didn’t we have an ice cream scoop?” Dave kept asking. We did. It was in the attic. I told him he could go up there and get it. He never did. I’m sure he had his reasons too. Eventually I bought him a new ice cream scoop.

But now we’re having all the windows in our house replaced. Two of the windows are in the attic, which is an unfinished room above the garage. And I thought: as long as we’re going to have contractors here and they have to get in the attic, we might as well have them finish that room. So now there’s a dumpster in our driveway, and Dave and I are cleaning out the attic. We toss the boxes out the window onto the lawn; it’s easier than carrying them down the stairs.

One of the boxes broke open when it hit the grass. In it, there was an account I had written of my run-in with the Friendly Neighborhood Child Molester. I wrote it 22 years ago, and it ended up getting published in a magazine. Holy crap!

I brought the magazine inside and sat on the sofa with it. My hands shook as I turned the pages and found my crummy little story. I couldn’t read the whole thing. I put the magazine aside and thought for a while about what to do with it.

Thirteen years ago, I was seeing a therapist who made me tell her that story over and over again. How many times did I recite all the gory details? I lost track. It didn’t help.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve said to E, “…and I’m not going to tell you that story.” Every time, she says that I don’t ever have to. I never get tired of hearing that. It helps.

In the end, I burned the magazine in the woodstove. Nobody else gets to know what happened in that vacant lot.


they don’t want me

Kathy asked if I had ever written that story on one of my canvas prints. I had not, which was both surprising and not-surprising-at-all.

So I started. It’s coming out in the disjointed way that these stories do. Not a straight line, but a zig-zag lightning-strike path.

when i was nine, my mother got very sick

Last year E suggested that I write a question with my right hand, then answer it with my left hand.

Q: What are these panic attacks about?

A: they don’t want me they don’t want me they don’t want me

I woke up at 3 o’clock the other morning, having put the pieces together in my sleep. Suddenly knowing that “they don’t want me” belonged on this piece of canvas with the rest of the story.


Back in E’s office, after we finish laughing about the wastebasket, I pull up this picture on my phone. We pass the phone back and forth. There’s not much talking. I zoom in on the details, one after another, so she can see the whole thing.

it got worse. i decided to run away.

A list of the things I had in my pockets when I left:

  • two dollars and sixty-three cents
  • a girl scout knife
  • a small red and silver flashlight

Last, but not least:

i brushed my hair for once.

We’ve been working together for more than five years, but I’m not sure I’ve ever told her that before. I’m not sure I could have said it aloud.

E looks up at me. We’re both crying.

Some things can never be fixed, but maybe you can find a way to stop being alone with them.


My right arm and shoulder are a symphony of pain. It wakes me repeatedly: the burn and sting of the skin on the back of the arm, the gristly grind of the shoulder joint, the stabbing ache where shoulder meets torso.

It is “my bad shoulder” in at least two ways. I sprained it a long time ago, and it has never been the same. It is the first place he touched me, and it has never been the same.

That arm is covered in tattoos from elbow to shoulder. People ask me what the tattoos mean. They mean: it’s my arm.

Between the waves of pain, when I can sleep, I dream that I am trying to tell a story, or to scream, or to say the name of someone who suddenly isn’t there. If I manage to make a noise at all, it’s only a tiny strangled squeak.

But the other day I managed to say to a small circle of women: this time of year is the anniversary of my running away from home and being sexually assaulted. It was hard to make the words come out of my mouth, especially in a little roomful of people who were trying to Be Here Now. A voice in my head argued that it was 38 years ago. My arm and shoulder say otherwise. I am having a hard time right now. That is the truth.


Here is another truth: “the incident” (as I have taken to calling it) was only a punctuation mark between two crappy sentences. The truth is that I was orphaned, and nobody noticed. I was bullied, and nobody could stop it. I’m not supposed to say those things either, but I’m saying them anyway. This is my story. I can’t let go of it if I don’t own it.


The next day I tell my therapist about telling them. My week has been so full that I feel very far away from her, even though I am somehow managing to sit in the chair instead of behind it. She leans forward and says she’s so proud of me. She says it again, firmly, a shade louder. I feel very far away, but not too far to hear her.

A few years ago, during another round of processing “the incident,” I complained to my husband that it felt like I was trying to pull a fire truck by myself. This is a thing I have actually done:

this is me, pulling a fire truck. i am the only one pulling, but i am not alone.

But you don’t really pull a fire truck alone. You can’t. You are the only one pulling, but you are not alone. There is someone sitting in the truck to make sure it doesn’t accidentally run you over. There is someone holding the rope so you don’t trip over it. There are people watching. Most of them are strangers. Some of them are shouting at you. You can’t do it without the shouting.

Julie says: See the body as a beloved animal you are rescuing. Right now, take the steps you know how to take.

You have no choice, she says, but to make your way back into the awkwardness & the pain & the subtlety & darkness & juiciness of the body.

That is exactly what my work is about.

One foot in front of the other. So much darkness. So much juice. Such a long walk.

It’s a good thing I’ve got boots and a flashlight.