November 22, 2016

Giving Thanks & Finding Gratitude as a Survivor of Abuse

Today, we continue our series with Jen Cross, who shares with us a special tradition for this time of year for finding grace and gratitude even as we cope with abuse or perhaps sit down to meals with those who have harmed us.


This past Saturday I gathered with seven other writers in a small conference room in downtown San Francisco and there we wrote and read aloud to each other as the rain fell outside, as the day opened its mouth into the afternoon, even as protestors marched up Mission Street, hollering, chanting, blocking traffic, taking up space. We wrote by way of our own protest, claiming and reclaiming our many possible voices, making room for the wise and the weird, the honest and the playful, the sensuous and the necessary.

At the breaks there was conversation about this post-election world we now inhabit, about various forms of self-care (reading, too much bad tv, travel, communion with like-minded others in resistance and rebellion, and, of course, also writing) – then we refilled our coffee or tea cups, brushed scone crumbs from our notebooks, and wrote some more.

As I sat in this roomful of writers, I found myself grateful: for their willingness to give over a Saturday afternoon to writing in community; for their creativity and words and risk; for their generosity with one another as they listened and offered feedback; for their humor and silliness and camaraderie at this time of great national turmoil; and did I say for their words?

I close every workshop session with a poem, a practice that I borrowed from a dear friend and colleague Chris DeLorenzo of Laguna Writers in San Francisco. On Saturday, I closed the writing group with the W.S. Merwin poem “Thanks,” as I do every November. It is my one annual workshop tradition. Some writers have read the poem around in my groups several times over the course of these years since I first read it. 

Can I find the words to tell you exactly what I most love about this poem, why I return to it over and over? I love it for its form—the breathlessness, the run-on sentences, the fragments of thought. Yes, there's irony here, but I read this poem through the lens of trauma, and so for me, the piece reads as one of the best articulations I've ever seen of trauma gratitude: the recognition of the horror around us all of the time and the way we — many of us, at least — find ourselves grateful anyway, grateful in spite of grief and war, in spite of how very bad things can get. 

Those of us reading this blog know some of the ways this world, and the people in it, can get very bad indeed.

I bring the poem every year because, for me, the poem exemplifies my relationship to the US holiday of Thanksgiving. We are supposed to give thanks for our blessings, to hearken back to the early days of our country’s history, a time when (the story goes) the pilgrims and Indians sat down together and broke bread, supporting each other. We are supposed to deny our real history—forget genocide and 500 years of occupation—and so this has always been a national day of cognitive dissonance. Those of us who have experienced violence and abuse and denial and secrecy at the hands of our families have an added layer of complication to navigate on this day. We know very well how to pretend like everything is all right, and we also know the deep damage that such pretending can do.

Merwin's “Thanks” is a poem that speaks to this complication, this cognitive dissonance that so many
human beings experience: even though we know everything is not fixed, or even fixable, we find ourselves grateful for something, many things, every single day: grateful for poetry, for laughter, for the flow of one word after another, for rhyme, for the way an unfamiliar metaphor can shock us awake in delighted surprise, for a rainbow over a supermarket parking lot, for resistance, for the smell of bread baking, for the noises of joy a dog makes when you scratch her head just above the eyes, grateful for anger and for the ability to cry as hard and long as we need to, grateful for cuddling on the couch after a long day at work, grateful for the taste of an apple, a fresh cup of coffee, for the wet purple Japanese maple leaves shellacked by rain to the sidewalk, for the smell of eucalyptus or snow, for that one song that brings tears to our eyes every time we hear it, for one good memory from childhood, for the ability to tell the truth(s) about our lives, for the minor scale in a favorite song, for the one bird who keeps on singing long after the sun has set, singing its clarion song into the night, even when every one of his brothers and sisters has fallen silent — for this song, for so much small and not so small at all, we are, paradoxically and continually, grateful — even though it’s true, as the poem says, everything is breaking.

This is not easy or simple gratitude: this gratitude is hard-won, is survival at its core.
May you find space for the paradoxical human gratitude that lives in you this week, even as you also make space to tell the difficult truths we are living in these days, personal truths and civic truths alike. May you find space for some words to flow on the page. May you feel, from my screen to yours, the gratitude I feel for your words as well,

W. S. Merwin

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

From The Rain in the Trees (Knopf, 1998)

A widely-anthologized writer and performer, Jen Cross has written with sexual trauma survivors and other writers for nearly fifteen years. In 2003, Jen founded Writing Ourselves Whole, an organization that offers transformative writing workshops, creating spaces in which the true and complicated stories of the body can emerge. Jen’s fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in over 30 anthologies and other publications, including Nobody Passes, The Healing Art of Writing 2010, make/shift, Visible: A Femmethology (Vol. 1), and Best Sex Writing 2008. She's the co-editor of Sex Still Spoken Here (CSC Press, 2014). Jen is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at San Francisco State University. Find out more about Jen at

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