Here is Amber Dawn’s letter; below it are the responses some participants created. We’ll continue posting them as they arrive. You are also invited to respond!
Dear Thursdays Writing Collective,
In early spring of 1993, I stayed in a group home for people with mental illnesses. I was given my own room and the intake nurse told me I was lucky. Each day for a week I joined the other patients in art therapy session. I participated willingly when the session involved colourful yarn or plastic beads or wooden popsicle sticks. The therapist asked me, “What have you made, Amber Dawn?” and I said, “Probably a bird house for an impossibly small bird.”
But if the therapist encouraged us to draw or write, I retreated to the corner of the room. Twice I willed myself to cry to avoid the exercise. The therapist asked me, “Do you know why you’re afraid to try?” and I sobbed so openly that I was escorted back to my room.
I voluntarily checked-out the day we were asked to draw a body map. I could not lie down on the long roll of white butcher’s paper. I did not want another patient to trace an outline of my body. I was afraid to imagine my empty silhouette on the page, and very afraid to colour it in. So I told the nurses at the front desk that I was no longer suicidal and that I hadn’t heard malicious supernatural voices speaking to me in days and I left the group home. I was eighteen-years old.
When Elee Kraljii Gardiner contacted me to about this letter, I understood that the invitation was an opportunity to be loving and brave. Perhaps no group better knows how courage becomes part of the writing practice as the tremendous minds and pens at the Thursday Writing Collective. I admire you dearly. Enclosed is my body map, written as prose (a life-sized portrait seemed too cumbersome for a letter envelope). The idea of a body map is simple enough: to creatively explore the stories that live in the body.
I am my mother’s only (living) child. She once told me about how her bellybutton didn’t pop out until she was eight months pregnant. It was peach and bush-cricket season in Southern Ontario. She grew a vegetable garden and kept penned rabbits for food. She made jam and pickles to store in the root cellar. She wrote in the Baby Book she was gifted at her baby shower. “Amber Dawn” she wrote on the page for baby name ideas. “Amber Dawn” she mused, like a beautiful new day.
In that baby book it says I was born, not at dawn, but around four in the afternoon, that I left her womb quickly and made only a tiny sigh as I took my first worldly breath. I was crowned with thick black hair. Under eye colour, my mother had answered “almost black.”
I’ve imagined my mother nursing me, her newborn with eyes black like a dog’s, and wondered if she was disappointed I didn’t have her hazel-green. Is it possible that the difference of our eye colour was the catalyst for the immense differences in our lives? That I would grow up refusing to lower my gaze to my abusers’ raised hands. I would stare angrily at the drunken men who crashed through my childhood. I would give dirty looks back to the teachers that claimed I was an un-teachable idiot child. Soon enough I would turn entirely away from rural roads and cricket fields and set my sights on the faraway city. That I would spend my life seeking out the beautiful new days my mother never got the chance to see.
Left Arm and Hand
Children’s minds are tenacious. I learned all about this when I was in recovery. Young children need strong minds because they are always adjusting to new situations. They create stories to explain the many new things they learn about each day. Young children can create fantastic coping strategies if they are being hurt. I also learned about this in recovery.
I endured too much hurt as a child. I can only say this now that I’m an adult and the hurt has ended. But back when I was a child being hurt, I imagined something different was happening. Doctors call this dissociation. Children have been documented calling it “going away” or “floating” or “time for dreamland.” Other children have been documented to have created alternate identities for themselves—like imaginary friends—identities that could handle all the pain. Honestly, I don’t remember “floating” or any imaginary friends. Maybe I’ll never explore my subconscious deep enough to know the extent of my child’s mind, and that’s okay.
What I do remember is when I was being hurt I imagined putting all the pain into left arm and hand. Just my left arm and hand, over and over again. This memory may make some readers feel empathy. I send strength and love to those readers and those empathetic feelings. The way I like to think about it is that these were the first instances when my imagination proved mightier than the world around me.
To this day, I feel like I have a very strong, tenacious, imaginative child living in my left arm and hand. I do not get tattoos or wear any jewelry on my left arm or hand. I spend extra time in the bath washing my left arm, and rub extra hand lotion into my left hand. Sometimes I still suck my left thumb. What a strong and good little child lives in there. What a strong, good child.
My feet stopped growing well before puberty and I remember being told that I would be particularly short. In high school my nickname was Pippin, after a hobbit from “Lord of the Rings.” But in grade twelve I had an astonishing, late-bloom growth spurt. This was the same year I moved out. I don’t call it running away because my mother told me if I wanted to walk out of the family, then I’d better walk. I did walk. I walked all the way to the other side of the continent. I was done walking when I reached the ocean.
Today I am 5’ 2’’ and I can confidently adjust the height of a microphone at a poetry reading. It’s the little things.
I wear my wedding band on my right hand. I make love to my wife mostly with my right hand. Our first time together she laughed and squirmed around on the bed and her skin turned very pink. I wondered if I was doing it wrong. But she told me not to stop and laughed harder still.
I have a tattoo of a magnolia bloom on my right hand. I brought the tattoo artist a photograph of the magnolia tree that stands in our front yard. Each spring my wife and I exclaim, “The magnolia blossoms are opening! They’re opening!”
I shaved my head as a high school sophomore. At first, with a friend’s electric razor, and then right down to the bare scalp with shaving cream and a disposable bic. My step-father had been coming at me, mostly with his fists, but sometimes with beer-lips and an erection. I thought, I’d better start being ugly.
I was twenty when I discovered west coast punk rock feminism. My girlfriends and I spray-painted billboards at night. We hitch hiked and dumpster dived. Some of us learned to play the guitar. There were still men in cars willing to trade fifty-dollar bills for blow jobs. I wished these men would stop offering. I needed the money, but blow jobs didn’t feel very feminist to me. What would my girlfriends think? I shaved my head a second time. The men in cars didn’t notice me as much.
More recently, everyone sees me as a bottle redhead. A ginger. A vixen. A cherry. A rose. A scarlet letter. A beacon. A poppy. A valentine. A volcano. A flame. A siren. A stoplight. I like it—the attention. My hair is emblematic of the woman I always wanted to be. Only now do I feel safe and bright enough for red.
Not all women do, but I like the word “pussy.” Probably because I like cats and enjoy the sound of purring. Mostly I like to think of my pussy having nine lives.
My heart is inside of me, out of sight, and so I rarely think about it. I’ve retained enough biology 101 to know that it’s a hollow organ in charge of pumping blood. But if I shush my nagging brain I can hear the sound of my own heartbeat. And I think, “Yes, I’m alive.”
Since this letter is about the body, I have enclosed some sweets that might arouse your sense of smell and of taste. I have always found chocolate very grounding. Please remember that pleasure must be part of our art.
If you respond to this letter by composing your own prose body map, practice self-care. The body that holds stories deserves tenderness. I suggest starting by kissing the hand you write with. Try it. Love yourselves. Write on!
Responses from Thursdays Writing Collective
My eyes denegrate
like a heritage
Several of my nieces
I don’t I did not
Want to see
Pretended it wasn’t so
and so my good eyesite
in some cosmic way
what the knowing heart refused to know
and the blur came
both eyes in agreement
My body’s mind
the true escape
not enough of me
here but not here
Reclaiming is such a fist fight
I’m frightened to fight
I want to need to
and I escape into
of crime scene detective stories
cause you see
you see don’t you.
A Letter to Those Who Break the Cycle
1. Simultaneously indicators of progress and demise
More rights than ever shields the lie
We exist as targets
to be invaded and silenced
Our bodies act as the ultimate war ground for
Clashes between love and violence
2. “Why do they hate us?”
Mama asks when I tell her of these things
3. She is a night owl
Light seeping out from under bedroom door,
awaiting my return from the darkness
A return she ensured through
Powerful spells of invisibility
That would shield me from whatever
follows in shadows or light
4. Fists or knives
These are things my mother taught me
5. My own father is a good man
My mother agrees, crying when she says “I feel lucky”.
A good, kind man
As if it is a fluke, an anomaly that she should have this
6. watercolours she painted dot my childhood home
Landscapes of freedom
novels and poetry written
literary love letters to my father
Constructed out of words so beautiful and gentle
they seem too fragile to touch
7. these works are not good enough
she is unwilling to accept the same
love and recognition that flowed freely from her
like a river
8. if I met my mother’s rapist
I would make him feel my mother’s life
Moments of crippling insecurity and self-doubt
Feelings of worthlessness that play under the skin and around the eyes
Through the intestines
But that ultimately live in the heart
9. He is not strong like my mother
So I imagine he would take his own life
Saving me the trouble
10. He is not like my mother
Who taught me to cry because I am both strong and
I am weak
To My Dear City
To my Dear City,
When I chase after you, begging, crawling, and crying, you simply change directions. You hope to evade me. Not for self-preservation, but for convenience.
My dear city, you are like lovers that I have left. Indifferent, glassy-eyed, high. Even when I shake you, my aggression runs off you like water. You are unconcerned with the damage you have done me.
In my dear city, nothing but concrete hears our anguish. That is why sidewalks are so hard underfoot.
They told me to “start by kissing the hand you write with.”
When I heard those words, I was filled with an intense feeling of dread.
Immediately, I saw the hatchet and knives sitting on the table, garishly highlighted by the glare of the sole light bulb hanging from the ceiling by a worn wire. The air conditioner’s fan caused the exposed light bulb to move to and fro, setting the stage for what was soon to become a grisly scene.
I was sitting in a dark warehouse room, my mind wavering more than the lamp. I couldn’t see the faces of my tormentors who had just spoken in unison. It had sounded like the voices of two large, tough men. That is all that I knew.
One minute I was walking on a busy New York City street, on my way to the bank. The next minute I was struggling to regain consciousness in this stale, drafty room.
I admit that I was more than a little afraid. I was terrified. My mind and body were adjusting to this new environment, and the internal surge of adrenalin which heightened my awareness to unknown levels.
“I’ve been kidnapped,” was my initial thought. “How?”, “Why?” soon followed.
This dire situation could only be related to my recently published book, exposing a scandal at the highest levels of government. I knew that I was up to my neck in trouble and had no idea how I was going to get out of this one.