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A Radical Response

part one of a blog series on trauma, relational compassion, and my new book Parrot Flower.

Love is the one thing the heart craves.

Mary Oliver

I have a tattoo on my back: Hebrew lettering quoting the first half of Song of Songs 4:7. Not the Toni Morrison book. The poem. In fact, one of the most well-known love poems in world history—from which Morrison drew the title for her book—and it’s in the canonized Biblical text.

Not that this matters much to me.

What matters to me is the story; a story that has inspired me over and over again to question Western responses to trauma and ideas about recovery. The tattoo on my back, in Hebrew, simply says “there is no flaw in you.”

Ever have someone tell you you’re flawless? I imagine it doesn’t happen often to most of us. And if it does, I also imagine the utterance initiates discomfort. None of us believe we are flawless. In fact, we know we’re not. But what if the speaker is just as conscious of our flawed humanity as we are? And what if he/she/they speak “there is no flaw in you” not from a place of assessment, but from a place of conviction? Meaning that, the whole anatomy of flaws is rearranged inside the mind of the speaker and rendered something quite breathtakingly beautiful and perfect—flawless.

Parrot Flower, a chapbook of experimental poems invites us into the story of a young man and woman who suffer from debilitating shame due to childhood sexual assault and other abuses at the hands of people they know and depend on. These early betrayals make strong statements about their worth and vulnerability and the ensuing trauma is something they try to dissociate from through casual sex, cutting, opiate-use, frivolous purchases, smoking cigarettes, blaring music at all hours, etc.

For all of us, dissociation, in any form, is the mind and body’s willed response to take us out of a painful moment of re-lived trauma and render us powerful against those first feelings of powerlessness. But, as Beverly Engel says in It Wasn’t Your Fault, a book for sexual assault survivors, “[g]aining personal power cannot heal the debilitating shame from childhood abuse. The truth is, one cannot be truly empowered until the shame is brought out, examined, and healed by compassion.”

The tattoo on my back bespeaks this hope. In the Song it is taken from, lovers find incredible worth in the other, flaws and all. Shame, in fact, is subverted as flaws are portrayed as unique qualities adding intrinsic value, personality, experiential wisdom, sexual magnetism, and sources of strength—all inviting intellectual complexity and play. The Hebrew language I chose to write into my body immediately after my divorce several years ago begs me over and over again not to see my own trauma and its often-frustrating manifestations as reasons to engage self-pity and shame (though I do many times), but as reasons to celebrate what can be sussed out of those wounded places each time their damage is exposed—a sussing or excavation that can only happen when compassion is applied.

Often, we have to do this for ourselves. “Self-compassion,” says Robert Gonzales, “is approaching ourselves, our inner experience, with spaciousness, with the quality of allowing which has a quality of gentleness. Instead of our usual tendency to want to get over something, to fix it, to make it go away, the path of compassion is totally different. Compassion allows” (from It Wasn’t Your Fault).

Ideally, this compassion—this allowed spaciousness—comes through relationship.

That is the radical premise of Parrot Flower—as well as its terrible problem. Victims of childhood violence are often deprived of this sort of relationship because their pain manifests in ways that are deeply troubling to others.

I know. I live here.

I’m still walking through this story letting the tattoo on my back to do its magic. Receiving love that allows for spaciousness. Learning to apply compassion to my own pain, gently.

Parrot Flower comes out with Glass Poetry Press in January of 2021. This is the first of a series of blogs I will write on trauma, coping, and relational compassion—the hope that comes from taking the time to sit with others in their darkness and learn from them. But “what value is learning,” asks thirteenth-century theologian Anthony of Padua, “that does not lead to love?” Let’s learn and be led to more love.


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