Monday, May 19, 2014


Brace yourselves; I'm about to get all mid-2000's on you.

It's for a good reason, though. Off and on throughout my adolescent and adult life, I've visited and revisited the brilliant works written by Alice Sebold. For those of you who don't recognize the name, she is the author of the best selling novel The Lovely Bones. I read the book for the first time about ten years ago, and honestly haven't really had the courage to give it a thorough re-read; but I refer back to that and to her memoir, Lucky, whenever I need some careful encouragement. 

I say careful because she has a brilliant gift for addressing the layers and the seasons of traumatic stress in wonderfully delicate yet brutally honest ways. She wants to walk with you through every single beautiful terrible step of this healing process. She understands the ins and outs, the dynamics, the pieces, the scope of trauma. In The Lovely Bones, we meet fourteen year old Susie Salmon just before she is raped and dismembered by her neighbor, George Harvey. She remains alive for the reader in her heaven, though, watching her bereaved family attempt to realign their lives as best as each of them can...and learning how to let go herself. 

Peter Jackson's adaptation of the book for the cinema was...just so extremely well done. Although the gruesome details of Susie's rape aren't quite as in-your-face as in the novel, and there is really no mention of sexual violence until Susie encounters Mr. Harvey's other victims in her heaven, Jackson's interpretation doesn't negate or minimize the trauma that she suffered. Each frame seamlessly weaves together the ways by which people deal with tragedy; the ways by which we learn how to survive. It is as delicate and honest as Sebold's novel. It is so much more than just a story; it is a masterpiece that respectfully exploits the emotions for which we don't particularly have the language.

I'm not writing this simply as a review; I don't really care about that. The reason I felt like writing about this film is because every time I watch it, it does something to me. The first time was in the cinema with friends, and I left feeling so happy to gently hold the life that I have, and the people in it. The next few times were in my home, by myself, sometimes feeling the need to distract myself from really watching the screen because I don't want all of the feelings all of the time. Because miraculously enough, this movie feels exactly the way that trauma feels. Exactly. It doesn't miss a single step. Everything. Anxiety, fear, grief, loss, paranoia, nightmares, self-hatred, flashbacks, anger...all the way to community, healing, closure, some nuance of justice. 

This is why the film is so important to me. I encounter lots of people who have survived sexual violence, but I also encounter lots of people who are co-survivors; people who are vicariously impacted by someone else's experience with sexual trauma. For co-survivors who haven't directly experienced this kind of trauma first hand, it's often difficult to empathize because the burden can be enormous. 

There are so many things that can cloud a person's perception of somebody working through this healing process; sometimes, survivors don't particularly want to talk about the way they're feeling, or can't quite put it into words. We can be confusing, because we're confused ourselves. We can be flighty, forgetful, irrational, emotional, frightened by the smallest, triggered by the slightest. We can get very, very angry. We can lash out at people who are only trying to help us. We can also lash inwardly at ourselves. We can cry for hours, we can shake for days, we can be hazy for weeks, we can lose entire months. We can go numb sometimes, and other times, we feel as intensely as a person can feel. 

But with this depth of emotion comes the ability to see the contrasting beauty in the world. Because we have felt so deeply, we have developed a better idea of how to feel deeply. We know how to recognize community. We care excessively, obsessively for one another. We try to learn how to care as well for ourselves.

So if you are a survivor looking for validation of your journey, one small step towards self-care might be simply taking an evening off to watch this film. If you are a co-survivor searching for ways to understand the complexity of the traumatic stress being experienced by somebody you love, I encourage you to watch this film. It is a tiny glimpse into a healing process that takes many, many years. It is, not at all intending to be reductive, a PTSD sampler. You will feel such a rich variety of things, and you may become so tense that you need a massage by the end (I actually have one scheduled for next Tuesday, and can hardly wait!) but if the intent is to begin understanding the journey of a friend or even to find solidarity during your own journey, then by all means, you will find these things in The Lovely Bones.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Decompression, etc.

I'm irritated, and I am not easily irritated. 

However, it isn't just another bad semester coming to a head; this semester wasn't bad. In fact, it began as a vortex of high-anxiety and no direction and panic attacks and shaking and nausea and confusion; it ended in a much clearer headspace. 

I needed direction, accountability, and affirmation. I have myself, my friends, and my therapist to thank for my recently acquired ownership of those things. 

But now, to attempt some flighty form of self-care, I'm going to list the things that are making me irritated.

Irritating Things:
1. Obligatory and likely relevant biochemical data point: it's pretty much just about that time of the month. 
2. I'm hungry. For cookie dough.
3. Somebody tried to break into our house, and I'm not there to fuck them up.
4. I'm sitting in a conference with collaborators from the University of Illinois, and for the first time in my life, I'm realizing that I can't make myself care about my research project.
5. I don't care about this research project.
6. Remember that time when I told my research adviser that I wanted to learn more hands-on experimental skills in the rocket lab, and instead he gave me a giant radar data set to analyze and cry over?
7. I can't even with programming right now. And I never have.
8. I can't handle another 11 hours in the car with my adviser. Dear sweet baby Jesus. This is why I travel alone.
9. I need my tax return. I need it in order to survive. Help.
10. Again: somebody tried to BREAK INTO OUR HOUSE, and I'm not there to FUCK THEM UP.

So until further notice, I am opening my mouth only when necessary and constantly checking my resting bitch face. I need to be fed and watered, and I need some me time. I need to prioritize. Most of these things can absolutely be fixed, and I believe that they will be, soon. It's frustrating, though, that I have to write this sham of a Master's thesis before I can revise my life to align with what I really want. Everything will be alright. I know this. I know this. I know this.

And in general, my loves, things are bright and getting brighter. Back to the Badlands soon, and fresh air, and wide open spaces to diffuse my infinitely condensed matter. Driving by my goddamn self, forever it seems. Riding this out. Loving it, probably, in my own strange and beautiful way.

Soon enough.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Music and Mathematics

What is it that makes music so much like a prayer? Why is it that a single bass line or a root chord can form just barely intangible foundations? My colleagues and I understand the mechanisms behind this; the solutions to the wave equations, the Bessel functions, the spherical harmonics, the Fourier analysis, frequencies, amplitudes, everything that goes into the physics of sound...but that's just the heart of the mathematics. The heart of the matter, or rather, the heart of what really matters, is something far more complicated and extraordinary; something incalculable. Something that doesn't always make logical sense, and yet, it persists.

This is personal. It's also uncomfortable, I suppose, but it's necessary because this is how we express the things for which we do not have the language. These are the tears of frustration and brokenness that fall down my cheeks as I'm trying to explain the things for which my heart breaks and can't; I'm simply repeating words and movements until I realize that this isn't just a habitual motion as much as it is a dance, and this isn't just a story as much as it is a song. Because I can't feel the convective cycle of my soul until I realize this, and ride the chaos all the way down to my core.

And, to yours.

The people with whom I make music are the people with whom I share my spirit. I become transparent through my vocal chords and piano keys and guitar strings, and this is why singing is so terrifying. We aren't afraid that we're "not that good" as much as we're afraid to expose our spirits. Music is one of the most difficult, beautiful, honest things that a person can do. It moves us in directions we didn't even know existed. It exposes all of our vulnerabilities and repressed emotions, thoughts, feelings, hopes, prayers. It requires collaboration and connection. It demands that we let go. All of the things that we find so hard to do in each of our individual journeys and healing processes, all of the things that take so much time and therapy and medicine and community and grace...these things are mandatory to create music. 

So, I forget sometimes. I live in academia and when I feel sad, I can find another academic with whom I can sort through the logical flaws in whatever has gone awry. I can solve some mathematics and physics problems. I can find energy eigenstates, without recognizing the state of my own energy. But until I realize that simply doing these things will never be enough, I feel as if all of the dark energy in the universe is sweeping me through empty space at relativistic speeds with no real comprehension of what is really going on. Because I stretch much deeper than the textbooks can tell me. I reach farther and I feel deeper. I notice. I want something genuine as a foundation without the possibility of a random scattering state throwing me off, somewhere. 

And the thing that I find to be the most genuine is my music-loving soul, the one that finds enough gumption to sing its way through every trauma and terror and mistake and failure of my life, whatever that looks like. I can do the work, but I'd rather feel it. Mathematics may be musical, but music is not only mathematics. Music is my prayer. It is my first language, it is my first love. It is how I find courage, and it is how I find community.

So let's make some music. And mean it.