I Knew I Had To Go Deep

by Maria Theresa Maggi on October 22, 2017

I knew I Had To Go Deep mixed media drawing by Maria Theresa Maggi

“I Knew I Had To Go Deep,” mixed media drawing, by Maria Theresa Maggi

 

One day last week on our drizzly walk to look at School House Creek emptying into the ocean at high tide, I thought a lot about the “me too” phenomenon prompted by the breaking stories of Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual predation. For some reason impressions from images of an ancient Egyptian city recently found underwater also came to mind. The photographs of statues underwater were so beautiful to me I wasn’t sure they should be excavated at all. If only they could stay in that watery light, fuzzy with sea life even, and still somehow be easily seen by whoever wanted to gaze upon them sounded fine to me.

This brought to mind an Adrienne Rich poem, “Diving Into The Wreck,” that became important to me during my early 30’s when I was coming to grips with the abusive relationship I’d had in college a decade before. At the time it occurred, the only way I could address it was to muster everything I had in me to physically extricate myself from it, and then a little more to also leave behind the friend who had enabled it.

This was accomplished almost like divine intervention dressed up as serendipity. I remember sitting in the student union reading a magazine waiting to take a test. My cousin walked in. He asked me how I was. He was sort of insisting I tell him. I said it was a long story and I had to go take a test. Then come over to my house tonight he said.

And I did. I told him what had been happening.After he heard the story of the entanglement of my roommate in aiding and abetting an abusive relationship I was trying to get out of, he said, simply, “That’s it. You’re moving in with me.” And he made me a peanut butter sandwich and poured me a glass of white wine to go with it. It’s still the best sandwich anyone else has ever made me, because it came with the love and support I needed but had not been able to reach out for until that night. I hadn’t eaten dinner, or maybe even lunch, or anything since before the test, and I savored every bite for the first time in weeks.

As I begin to narrate or try to narrate a selection of these sequences of events, I realize the memories come a lot like the way my train of thought ran during the walk to the mouth of School House Creek, and also like the “structure” of the walk itself. First of all, School House Creek didn’t start out to be the destination. It was only after dumping some compost at the community garden that we started to “wander” and our wandering brought us there, to look at the ocean and to see what it was up to in all its dramatic October glory.

"Above School House Creek," pastel memory sketch, by Maria Theresa Maggi

“Above School House Creek,” pastel memory sketch, by Maria Theresa Maggi

I used to tell my students that thinking, reading and writing were all part of the same continuum in the brain. Talking, too. And now, after 8 years of wandering around with Romeo twice a day, and in the last year Cotton, if I was still teaching I would add walking to that list. The actual movement seems to loosen my brain to let things I hadn’t thought about before arise from the ones that might be doing laps in my head at the front of my thoughts. They open the field, so to speak, and bring me to places I hadn’t expected to go, just like ending up at School House Creek when the tide was high. Without those walks, I would never have ended up with a chapbook of sonnets that became a finalist in a national contest and a real book other people could read and buy. Without those walks many of the posts and drawings you see here on the blog would never have gotten started. It all surfaces because I walk. (And, I might add, in my view, I walk because I now have eaten plants for nine years, and because I have my beautiful dogs to go with me.) So I welcome the pieces of memory and experience that arise on these walks, and I wait for them to reveal to me what their focus or form will be, and I trust that it will come, and that it most likely won’t be what I thought it might be–but that is one of the best parts of the “walk.”

So in the interest of saying this isn’t a complete chronology, but rather a “quilt’ of experiences and memories that shows me something about the force of my own creative drive, I didn’t actually move in with my cousin right then and there, but we did rent a little house together in the next few weeks for the start of a new semester.  My cousin was an actor and a theater arts major, and he brought with him all his actor friends. They were so much bigger than life and so accepting of me as my cousin’s bestie that escaping into their world became my substitute for therapy. It would be in this group of actors that I would meet the guy who would someday become my son’s father,  and who would also be my husband for a few years.

It wasn’t until I had married my son’s father and my son was almost 3 that my body started telling me it was time to deal with what had happened. I developed a strange injury in the ligaments in my pelvis. I could not be intimate with my husband. I could not pick up my toddler. I must have had to stay home from teaching, because I remember students coming to visit me. I remember how much I missed picking my son up.

I started to realize I would have to write about what happened.

It wasn’t just because I was a poet who had just finished an MFA in a prestigious program. It wasn’t  because my  writer friends and I all talked about the value of what we called “writing from the spleen.” As I think back on it now, I was  probably hoping to conjure an effective antidote  to a specific way the abuse had poisoned me. One of the things this boy in college did was to feel hateful jealousy of my ability to write.. He had wanted us to trade stories and read each other’s work. I gave him an older story, apologetically saying I really hadn’t written any stories in a few years, and he gave me one of his. After he read mine he said his was garbage and that I was the real writer, and that he hated me for it. Always the teacher, I tried to convince him he had promise (I thought he did), but he would have none of it. So woven into the sexual and physical and emotional abuse and mind games that escalated was the systematic and practiced demeaning of my identity as a writer.

I had been allowed into the graduate poetry workshop as an undergraduate at the state university we were both attending when I met him, and was given the opportunity to give a public reading. I begged him to come, literally. He said he might, but that he didn’t like “clit lit.” I think he did come, but I didn’t know if he would until he was actually there. I remember the room being very dark and being very nervous, and that I didn’t have my period and was scared I might be pregnant (mercifully, I was not). But I also remember other students from the graduate class who attended telling me they didn’t know I had been nervous, and that I read well.

Later, I applied for a TA position, which would have meant I would go on there at the state university in my home town to do my master’s degree. I remember no content of that interview, though I can see the classroom where it took place, and the panel of male professors assembled to interview me. I had worn uncharacteristically high heels to make me look professional. Because of my mild CP I could barely walk in them, and I had twisted my ankle before going in the door.  I was such a mess on so many levels by that time I must not have made a good impression. I didn’t get the job, and so didn’t follow through, right at that time, with continuing on to grad school.  When I went to this “boyfriend” for sympathy and support before and after the interview, he told me “You can read anything into anything. You’ll never be anything but a boring pedant.” My humiliation was complete when I had to tell him I didn’t get it.

During that terrible Spring, my Aunt Barbara, the mother of the cousin who made me the magical peanut butter sandwich, finally succumbed to brain cancer. She had been a surgical nurse in Lake Tahoe, and I attended her funeral and Irish wake up there. I had always loved her deeply and admired her tough spirit and determination to hold her family together against all the odds my uncle’s drinking and lack of strength demanded. He was completely dependent on her to hold things together and after she died in the months and years that followed, his immediate family would literally fall apart.

When I returned from that funeral, though, something else began to happen. I had become locked into a series of nights that started out with doing homework together and turned into a humiliating and frightening set of experiences I would try to gloss over or placate.  I began to feel my aunt’s presence with me, asking me or helping me to form this question: “is this how you want to live the rest of your life? Because if you marry a drunk, this is what you can expect as a matter of course.” One night after this boy, deep into his cups, had poured a whole beer down my favorite blouse because he said I didn’t understand passion, I could no longer ignore the spirit of my aunt. Why it hadn’t been the far worse things that had already happened doesn’t matter. I finally knew it would not change, and I had to get out, if for no other reason than to honor her truth. But I didn’t have a clue how to leave.

In trying to leave him behind I felt I must also leave behind the someone he thought I was, and tragically, that translated into throwing out a lot of my poems, and trying to give him some of my books so that he, too, would finish his degree. I have a very painful memory of dumping many of my literary textbooks in the Good Will bin. But the one I still have, my English Romantics textbook, thick with pages as thin as those in an old-fashioned Bible, I simply could not make myself toss. It’s on my shelf still, and helped me reread Keats and his letter in which I rediscovered the line that would lead to the title for my chapbook If A Sparrow.

Later on, in the house where I lived with my cousin, I would realize what I had done. I would paw through everything that was left and find some of the poems I thought I had gotten rid of, and I would start writing others. I would try to write about what had happened, but I wouldn’t get that far. I would read all of J.D. Salinger, looking for answers, as I recuperated for a month in bed after pneumonia and a cracked rib from coughing. I didn’t know I was looking in the wrong place, but at least I was looking.

So ten years later, after having a few poems published, and earning an MFA in Poetry writing, and winning an outstanding teacher award for teaching poetry writing, I would finally realize that I really had to  try to address what happened,  and to make it into something in my writing.

To do that, to tell it my own way, from my own truth about what happened, would give me myself back, or so I thought—the self I had tried to throw away, but couldn’t. Finally, I went to therapy to talk about it and to learn how.

I worked on this long poem for many months while I also went to therapy. It’s called “The Blank World.” When I finished it, I showed it to a visiting poet who was teaching in the program I had graduated from, where I still taught as an adjunct instructor. The afternoon I was scheduled to talk with her about my work, she spent the whole time telling me what a strong and beautiful poem “The Blank World” was. That very evening, it was my turn to share what had happened to me in a date rape survivor support group I had decided to attend in addition to my therapy. I had said ahead of time that I had been working on this long poem and asked if I could bring it and read it, since it was the best way I knew how to represent my experience. I was given permission to do that.

I never got through the whole poem, I don’t think. A couple of women started crying and got up and ran to the bathroom. One got really angry and yelled “she’s telling what happened!” Two others thanked me in the parking lot and said it was wonderful that I told the truth. At the end of that 8 week group, the facilitator called me “a deep sea diver” when it came to examining what had happened to me.

I was perplexed by this, and by the reaction of these women. I had thought of them as my perfect audience. But that didn’t turn out to be the case.

I would go on to be invited to read this poem to a group of college students at the women’s center trying to deal with their own experiences of date rape. I remember there was a young man in the group whose sister was a survivor. He was especially appreciative and thoughtful and asked good questions, though I don’t remember them now. That was a tender and healing gathering.

When I moved to Idaho to teach at the university there, I was invited to give a reading of my poetry sponsored by the English Department. By this time “The Blank World” had been published in The Black Warrior Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize, so of course I read it. Those readings were routinely attended by students who received extra credit from their writing instructors for going to readings and they were required to write a commentary proving they had attended. I remember one of my colleagues giving me a commentary one of his students had written. At the time large frame glasses were in style and I wore a pair of those in black. The student wrote that when I put the glasses on to read my work I was like Clark Kent, but when I started reading I somehow became Superman, able to break through walls and glass and throw heavy objects. I saved that review of my reading, and if I knew where it was at this moment I’d read it to myself again. I remember the student referred to me as “Maggi,” using my last name in the professional sense that a reviewer writes about a performer or writer. I was astonished to be referred to this way, and also strangely pleased.

The weekend after the Harvey Weinstein story broke, my son and daughter-in-law came to visit. Once a month they meet with a friend of theirs and go do something in Portland—this time they had gone to a talk and a screening of Silence of the Lambs. “It’s really good, “ they both said, when they realized I had never seen it and said I never would. “You might like it–except for the sociopathic killer part,” they offered, and we all almost laughed. I found myself saying that I had had a relationship with a sociopath in college and knew exactly what that could be like, so had no desire to see it on the movie screen. I felt the next question coming might be “but how did you know he was a sociopath?” so I told them that in one of my first few appointments with the therapist I saw in my early 30’s she brought me the textbook definition of a sociopath and read off several things I had said to her to describe my abusive boyfriend. He met the criteria, almost verbatim. I was stunned. It was the first time anyone had ever objectified his behavior to me in that way. It changed everything, and probably made it possible for me to finish writing “The Blank World.” I am forever indebted to her for how she helped me understand and accept my experience.

Still, though, I believed that writing about it would exorcise it from me. That turned out not to be the case. There would be years much later on that my body would still need to let go of the violation and betrayal, the abandonment and humiliation. Sometimes that still happens. But what I did learn is that when I try to make something from my experience, that is exactly what happens: it becomes a magical “something” that takes on its own life. It transcends yet also embodies the experience it represents.

I remember sitting on the deck of a writer friend I taught with, the night I read “The Blank World” at a southern California bookstore, enthralling yet another audience, before moving to Idaho to teach. I had told him it did not take away having to deal with the experience. It did not mean I was finished, as I had hoped it might. And the tears fell down my cheeks. I remember the deck we sat on was rough. I had taken my shoes off (uncomfortable once again). and didn’t mind if the texture in the wood was ruining my stockings. It was a relief to just say it and cry, without any quick answers in return.

Often, though, despite not being able to wrap things up in a neat package by writing about them, my poems do something far more powerful: they have had a way of knowing what is to come long before I know.

“The Blank World” proved to be beautiful, and disturbing, probably to everyone who read it. It appears in print in two places: The Black Warrior Review and my first book of poems The Rings Around Saturn published by Black Rock Press. But it most likely also rattled even editorial oversight. In both those print editions, mistakes have been missed. In the journal, the” l” in “love” is missing at the top of the page in the last section of the poem, resulting in a very conspicuous and ill-placed typo, and in my book a whole section is missing. At the time it was being published, the editor was passing through Sacramento, where my son and I happened to be spending the holidays with my parents. I knew I would not be able to do very effective proofreading there; as I predicted to myself, my mother interrupted me many times, and I missed the missing stanza. She had not read the manuscript, and completely ignored my caution that it might not be for her or our relatives, and set about telling family members far and wide to order a copy. It would only be later when she had received the book that she said to me over the phone: “Well, I thought I knew you, but I guess I don’t.” My Dad was equally offended by a memory represented in one of the other poems and simply said to my Mom that writers make all this stuff up.

To be fair to her, once she had digested this, she went into Borders bookstore and insisted they carry it. Her meddling may have been responsible for me making sure the ISBN number , kind of a new thing at the time, was available. This makes me smile, even now.

Thankfully, the version of the poem with the missing stanza works without it. No one ever knew it was missing. But to me it isn’t the whole poem without it, either.

The thing I like about that missing nightmare section and why it was where it was in the poem isn’t the selective representation of the horrible nightmares that dogged me in the year after that relationship. It’s how I ended it, with a very graphic and accurate representation of my fierce determination to return to the waking world. In the last nightmare of the section, I am laying on the ground while others talk about the fact that I am dead:

“. . .But I knew I wasn’t.  I’d
yell myself awake and throw on the bathroom light,
sobbing a knot of terror and relief that yes, this
is the toilet, the yellowed wall, the water spots
like floating cells saiiing on the chrome rack,
the contorted tube of toothpaste in the claw of my soapcatch,
just hold each thing in turn and shriek myself back
to the blare of waking distance.”

 

It would be more years before I’d read Courage to Heal and find within it the suggestion to stay present when triggered, sitting quietly and having it be enough to feel the hairs on my arm, if that’s all I could do. Yet tonight I realize for the very first time as I reread that lost section of “The Blank World” that long ago even when things were so bad, so raw, and I was often so seemingly disconnected from myself, I knew how to wake myself up out of those nightmares and focus on what was in front of me, including the water spots on the towel rack, whatever would return me to the immediacy of the present moment. I knew how to do it. And then, when it came time, I knew how to write that I knew—even without realizing it—it came like the breath. When I read the end of that stanza now, it feels like I’m talking to myself across time, helping myself remember that I knew, knew how to find my way back, find my words, find my voice, feel myself in my body, even when I was shrieking myself awake. That takes guts. That takes going deep. And I did it.

 

Before we left for our walk to School House Creek, I saw that another writer friend had asked for a “me too” playlist from her facebook friends. The first musical artist that came into my head was Shawn Colvin. And then I realized that “Steady On”  was one of the supports that brought me down the home stretch to finishing “The Blank World.” And I found it and played it really loud.

At first I was perplexed by the title “I Knew I Had to Go Deep,” that came to me for the drawing that also prompted this post. It didn’t come out the way I’d envisioned it. But I shouldn’t be surprised about that; it always happens this way, and I’ve learned to let it. I did see the figure in the drawing in the position she’s in, but I thought she might be holding her nose in her effort to descend. Instead, when I drew her, the hand only went as far as the chest. I was experimenting with pen under pastel and I wanted to see if the lines might be blurred by water, as is the case with some of my other pens. The water made the lines deeper, the splotches darker and resulted, quite by unconscious accident, in depicting the heart of the figure aglow in the green light reflected from the invisible surface. It seems, despite my attempts to suggest descent into the depths, that I most wanted to represent the buoyancy of my heart to live through that descent. Perhaps, in this way, I am “a deep sea diver” as that long ago young therapist facilitating the group suggested. Perhaps, as Adrienne Rich writes in “Diving into the Wreck,”

“I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed.”

Surprisingly, or not surprisingly at all, the green in the drawing is the color of the heart chakra, ajna— so perhaps, too, I wanted to portray that heart light as my beam to see through the dark water. It also evokes for me the “way through” toward the end of “The Blank World,” which says ”I saw my body, tightly and intricately packed as new leaves.” But of course I didn’t see any of this until after I drew it. While I was making the drawing I was simply in the trance of making it, and seeing what would come from it.

I looked online to see if there was an archived version of “The Blank World” as it appeared in The Black Warrior Review, but all that’s archived online is the table of contents for Volume 19, Issue 1, Fall/Winter 1992, with my name and the poem listed under Poetry. I had hoped I might find it to link to so my readers could choose whether or not they wanted to read the whole thing online, since I’m guessing it still packs a pretty disturbing punch to just about everyone from one angle or another. I could post it all here, but since my posts always have to be for me first, and then others who might share in my truth, the truth is I no longer need to offer it as witness to my experience. I did that, many times, in groups (survivors groups, friends of survivors groups and even a meeting of fraternity brothers half-heartedly required to address rape culture on campus) and at poetry readings. I’m glad I did. I needed to–then. Now, it’s enough that I wrote it and brought it out into the world as part of my healing process. I’m satisfied with the perfect knowing I have that I made it through, that healing is possible, and continual, and transitional, and a miracle, and a life’s work in progress. At the end of the poem, I represent only the faith this might be so. Now, decades later, I live the proof that it is. I’m ever grateful for the image and the placeholder I gave my wounded self in these last lines:

“I lost the time when I got to face him
and say I know what you did to me.
In the yard I saw hard, mysterious bulbs
break the practiced boundary of winter. I saw I
could admit that dream, and trust only
the broad wish to go toward a clear light out.
I saw my body, tightly and intricately packed as new leaves,
trying to spin back to its proper, transitional glory.”

 

Maria (moonwatcher)

 

Leave a Comment

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Marcia October 23, 2017 at 11:30 am

You have moved me in a way no other has. As with MANY of your messages, you brought me into the story where I became you and felt your message as if it were my own. I found myself holding my breath without even realizing it. I felt the pain (your pain) deep in my heart and even thought I’ve not had those experiences, your writing brought it to life inside me. Your message also made me crave more from you. You are one of the most awe inspiring women, no not women, people I’ve ever known and I thank you for sharing your stories, poetry and art work. Perhaps some day I will be on the receiving end of hearing you at a poetry reading. Thank you, Maria.

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2 Maria Theresa Maggi October 23, 2017 at 9:10 pm

Dear Marcia, thank you so much! I am honored to read how this post affected you so deeply. I was going out on a limb here a bit, so it means a lot to me to read these very kind words. I treasure them.

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3 Veronica October 24, 2017 at 8:01 am

Maria, I’m so sorry you had to go through all that trauma. The metoo thing breaks my heart. So many women have gone through so much pain. My soul aches for all of us. I’m glad you found an outlet through your poetry, and a safe space to move on to and begin to mend. Thank you for sharing your story. You are a beautiful artist, writer, and poet. Your picture at the top has so much more meaning after reading this; it is a hopeful light in the deep dark. Sending you much love. xoxo

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4 Maria Theresa Maggi October 24, 2017 at 9:38 am

Dear Veronica, thank you for your kind words here; they are deeply appreciated. I was especially moved to read how the words illuminated the art more deeply for you after reading. Sending you lots of love right back. xoxo

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5 Tamara October 24, 2017 at 2:38 pm

Dear friend, Maria. Thank you for this post.
Funny, in my own abusive past, I, too, would count the ordinary details to bring me back into my body before the fragmentation was permanent and irreversible. At times the only connection with the world I had was the feeling of the tip of my tongue on the back of my lower teeth. Even now,30+ years later, that small pressure assures me in difficult times. Bless you. Xoxo

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6 Maria Theresa Maggi October 24, 2017 at 2:53 pm

Dear Tamara, I thank you for reading it. How beautiful and moving is your own example of how you stayed present. I am honored you share it here. Blessings back to you, my friend! xo

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7 Pam October 29, 2017 at 8:49 pm

Maria, thank you for sharing your story. You seem to have such a strong sense of knowing what it is that you need to heal. Good for you, first of all for getting out of the relationship, and then for doing the therapy, the writing, the healing. And I completely agree with what you said in this sentence: ” I’m satisfied with the perfect knowing I have that I made it through, that healing is possible, and continual, and transitional, and a miracle, and a life’s work in progress.” Yes to all of that. Sending love.

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8 Maria Theresa Maggi October 29, 2017 at 10:12 pm

Thank you so much, Pam! I so appreciate your kind words here. Love back to you.

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9 Gena November 13, 2017 at 1:17 pm

Hi Maria,

I read this post last weekend, and I’ve been trying to formulate a comment or words that feel appropriate as a response to the profound excavation you’ve created here. I fear that if I keep waiting to have the “right” thing to say, I’ll wait too long, and I’ll miss an opportunity to thank you for the post while my appreciation and its emotional impact on me are still fresh.

So, I’m here to say how much I admire you for putting your truth into words; I cannot imagine how it felt to do so, but what you’ve given us is truly beautiful in its complexity, courage, and timeliness. Thank you, thank you. And thank you for encouraging me to revisit “Diving into the Wreck”—it had been a long time.

xo

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10 Maria Theresa Maggi November 13, 2017 at 8:03 pm

Dear Gena–thank you for your kind and thoughtful words here. I absolutely LOVE that you know “Diving into the Wreck”–it’s been a long time for me, too, but every now and then it resurfaces. I also love that you use the word “excavation” here.xoxo

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