I Remember: The Understory

Raise a glass

In remembrance of

Fire and strip poker and getting away with it,

The parents that raised you and the parents that gave you life.

Here’s to forest floors and downtown bars

To women and their stories,

The defiantly political and the depth of the personal.

Those who came by dust and water, nourished by figs and bees

Remember grandfathers

And wars, cold wars,

In memory of the chaos after wars

And personal wars,

And burning the past:

Here’s to rehab, recovery and strength.

In remembrance of trains and schnapps and naps

Here’s to the sound of choirs and standing in the rain.

In memory of worn lace and the soft security of comfort,

Of mothers. And of magic.

For lost words, last words,

Last chapters, final scenes:

For stories and understories

The told and the untold,

In reverence,

We remember.

Travel: The Understory

As our journey begins

Headed along the Pacific Coast Highway via LA,

Some advice:

You may be too scared to sleep,

You may be going to fast,

You may be nearly dead,

I Was In Prison – The Understory

Deep gratitude to our storytellers tonight. It was a privilege to hear your words, your lives & your dignity. – cary.

In prison…

I watch. Minute by minute. Second by second. My son: stripped, beaten, killed.

No breath? No justice.

I read. I learn. “The way out is in one of those books.” I get out.

No attorneys? No friends? No justice.

I teach. I am banned from teaching. I am heartbroken. I keep teaching.

No teaching? No ideas? No justice.

I keep vigil. For my friend. Dying. Surrounded by community, care, love.

No humanity? No dignity? No justice.

I fall in love. The prison is hell. A monster. Yet it is my church: holy.

No collaboration? No community? No resistance. No restoration. No justice.

I see scars. Tears. Anger. I see more scars. Self-violence. Unbearable pain to erase unbearable pain.

No voice? No peace of mind? No sky? No relief. No justice.

I visit. They abuse my husband. They abuse me. We sue. They punish us both.

No freedom of speech? No litigation? No reform? No justice.

I am sitting in prison. I am sentenced to death. I am angry. My mother dies. My world shatters. I pick myself up.

No direction? No purpose? No advocacy? No justice.

I am a threat to the system itself. I am exiled. Solitary. Caged. Animal. Tortured.

No humanity? No reconcilliation? No love? No hope?      No justice?

There would be no me.

Beginnings – The Understory

(The “understory” is a thematic weaving together of the 9 stories, written live as they are heard and then performed as a  summary of the night.)

If it begins with, “Oh boy, stage fright!”, it ends with finding your voice.
What begins with chapstick parties on the school bus, with a dinosaur thrown in, becomes twenty years of friendship.

The firsts of a new relationship are an all-too perfect beginning that ends in a phone call. And with the douchebag gone, becomes you, just you, saying, “Yes!”

When it begins with a naïve, if confident, traveller in 1971, be glad it didn’t end up in Turkish prison like it could. But if it begins with, “I’m just dead to the world,” you just know an obituary’s coming. And a very awkward funeral.

What began in Vermont on September 12th, 1983 became a new start: a path of creativity and identity lived stitch by stitch. Meanwhile, the feminist collective that began in Knoxville in ’94 did not end well. But it birthed its own legacy of voices & creativity, of thriving beyond surviving.

However it begins, and however it ends, peacefully, loved & cherished we hope, it’s always a new beginning for those you leave behind.

Remember: if you begin as Linda, you might end up as Mae. You can end up whoever you want to be. Even if that means re-beginning as Linda.

tenx9nashville, this was your (under)story.

Big thanks to our storytellers. You made this another great night. – Cary.

Fear – The Understory


It’s starts with October:

Horror films :: Halloween tales :: Dolls with creepy eyes :: Shitty relationships.

Darkness falls over a park in Prague.

When the map doesn’t match the city, will you take the path less taken?

Are you afraid yet?

So you say you don’t scare easily. You got this. What about when your life is on the line?

Turbulence :: Near in-flight collisions :: Drunk drivers.


A car where your sofa should be. A tree where your wall should be.

Getting caught after a a tornado in your underwear :: The dark :: A fire.

Will you have your shoes when the moment comes?

Are you afraid yet?

Small towns ::  Parties :: Boys ::  Alcohol :: A bathroom.
Violation. Bruises. Loss. Despair.

(The road is getting darker.)

Gossip. Shame. Loneliness.


Wait! What road are you on?

You afraid yet?

Midnight :: Soldiers. Bullets.

Occupation :: Home invasion.

Think you can fly? Fly away? Think that’ll save you? It might save you. Might not save them.

Are you afraid yet? Laid to the void yet? Motivated yet?

Thunder :: Lightning :: Dank basements.

Silence :: Darker.

Who are you?

The doorway ::  A form.

Dying ::  Living :: Success :: The drink.

Can you tell what’s real?
Fear will rob you.

You afraid yet?

A canyon :: A handsome young man to walk with you :: People turned to stone.




Think screaming will help? There’s your voice screaming back at you.

You afraid yet?

Corporations ::  Shit! Lawyers for corporations. :: Demons!


You ain’t gotta go nowhere to get somewhere.

Take nothing.

Swamps :: Alligators. [*deep exhale*]

Are you afraid yet?

Severed thumbs :: A father’s tears :: Quadruple bypass.

Dementia :: Your tears.

tick tock tick tock tick tock

Are you afraid yet?

Spiders. Now it’s time to freak. The. Fuck. Out.

There’s the fear you can remember. And the fear you can’t forget.

Feel its brush upon your cheek :: An army of spiders :: Blitzkrieg.

Foe? Or friend?

Are you afraid yet?

A haunted house :: A plane :: Bathroom :: Hebron.

A basement :: A canyon :: Hospital room. Childhood.

This stage…

When your heart’s pounding, when you’re afraid…
You’re still living.
And if you’re still living, there’s still hope.

Be afraid.

tenx9nashille, this is your story.

Nashville – The Understory

Here is the summary of Tenx9’s September theme “Nashville,” written by the brilliant Cary Gibson. This is the story we all told of our city. 


This is Nashville. It’s a place where saving face is an art form. And, according to the late Miss Addie, it’s where a massage can be better than sex. Glory! Amen! She’d have said too, it’s a place of caring.

They call this Music City. It’s a place you are supposed to be. Where dreams can come true. But sometimes your dreams come slowly. Slow enough you might get lucky enough to experience the real city and its people, its harsh ugliness and crystalline beauty.

Nashville. We’ve come a long way from segregation, forced bussing, the punishment of the brave students of the sit-in movement. People, like James Lawson, carved out a continuing legacy of peace and justice making. Now they call us the “It City”. But that’s not the whole story. From North Nashville, this looks like two cities. Under the continuing legacy of white supremacy, this too is Nashville.

Because in this town, people struggle. Especially when they’ve nowhere to call home. Where “trespassing” so often depends on who you are, or the color of your skin. So that under the neon lights of lower Broadway, folks like Johnny are ticketed for existing. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, like Johnny, you’ll be met with subverting goodness. And you’ll make it. Be that goodness, Nashville.

Nashville can be a strange and startling place for the newcomer. The South sure is different. It’s the kind of place where nocturnal musicality can prove a bizarre and perfect welcome – where the sound of what you thought was cattle slaughter in the apartment above on your first night in town can be the basis of lasting, beautiful friendship.

Nashville. Home of the Occupied Plaza. A place where “truth” is a confusing, blurred, contested thing. A place of angels and devils. So you want to change politics. Or America. Sometimes what you get instead is frail, personal, stupid, human stories and encounter. So here’s to the creative misuse of the city. Let’s make this city a home.

This city where some, no, so many, are incarcerated. People like Marcus. Marcus dreamed of murder. This city of poverty. Neglect. Abuse. Perverse habilitation. Isolation. Where the prison cell is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Where a razor turned on the self is sometimes a man’s only voice. Where a man would kill to be heard. This too is Nashville.

For the preacher’s daughter from Appalachia, Nashville was less than impressive – a conformist, country music cliché. But it’s home of the rebel too. And rock ‘n’ roll. To find something like rebellion, back in the early 80s that white girl from the hills had to go to the Rivergate Mall. Which proves that some things do change. Keep changing, Nashville.

This city of cab drivers. And assumptions. Of “contemporary” Christian music & selling religion. A city with a non-stop supply of audiences. Does everyone here want to be famous? And if not famous, as close to fame as they can get so they might feel its cold, reflected glamor? This too is Nashville: people from Virginia and people from Kurdistan in conversation. Asking questions…

Whoever you are Nashville, know what is real. Be you. Be better. Better than famous. Be goodness. Be love. Be justice. Be peace.

Show and Tell – The Understory

Cary Gibson, co-host of Tenx9, strikes again with another lovely story summarizing the 9 stories from May’s theme “Show and Tell.” Enjoy. 


Show and Tell.
9 objects tell 9 stories & meet to become one story.

Winning feels really good. But I am not a winner. The object of this story is not me. I’m running through the woods with this flag I captured – a red bandana – covered in another scout’s pee, and it’s the best feeling in the world. And I earned it. Oh, this guy? This toy monkey has traveled the world. Technically, illegal – he’s like a crushed nut shell mule. He once danced for Bono. With much gravitas I might add and to the rock star’s great amusement. I tried not to fan girl. One day he might dance for you. But let me tell you about the time I forgot I had a sister. To be fair, I had been in a coma and was recovering from a traumatic brain injury. This photograph of me and my family told me the story of her. And the people that loved me – the story of me. And I healed. Then on my first day as a teacher, when they handed me this bunch of keys to a school filled with students burdened by social disadvantage, I was overwhelmed and scared. But, by year’s end, this was not the class I’d started with. And I was not the teacher they started with. They changed me. I am better because of those kids – a better teacher, a better person. By the way, did you know that “A church alive is worth the drive”? You do now. Going to that kind of church meant in high school I had to read Harry Potter in secret. Because: witchcraft. One night in college I skeptically joined my roommates in purging everything Harry Potter we owned: holy ghost relief for demonic headaches. But like a thief in the night, I crept out to the trash can & I saved Harry Potter. Not just mine. Their entire stash. Which is how I came to own this DVD. While teaching philosophy and critical thinking, I let a surgeon who wouldn’t listen leave me in chronic pain, unable to walk and dependent on narcotics. An Iranian feminist doctor told me I needed to take control of my narrative. So I did. Which is how I walked over the finish line of the Nashville AIDS Walk in support of my HIV+ friends. It meant I hadn’t died. I had survived. I was more than the sum of my parts. I have this t-shirt to prove it. Let me tell you how my mother used to embroider messages on her clothes but also write words of inspiration in books to give away to other military families like ours. Words to make you think, to warm your day and lift your spirit. Those words were seeds. Crushed at the loss of my teenage dream, my mother gave me her words – a seed of love & inspiration. She gave me my sister too. And then my mother was gone. But that seed? I didn’t let it go. And like my tiny sister, it lived and grew. Something you should know about my parents is that they never talked about their relationship. I knew the dates and facts of their narrative. But not the truth. As a child, the truth of my world existed around me, unseen. Years later, I have fragments of the truth. Like a sweetheart’s letter. What really happened, of how my family came to be, is something I’m still not ready to tell. But now let me take you back to high school. After two years of wearing braces, I felt free as I clutched onto my expensive new retainer. With my new braces-free smile even the cheerleaders found me cute. I was confident. I became Mr. Comedy. Until at the height of my popularity, I lost my retainer in the cafeteria trash. I went from the object of admiration to the butt of the joke. But knee deep in trash, looking for my lost retainer, I found a new friend. 

All In a Day – The Understory

Here is yet another poetic, narrative summary of our nine stories from “All in a Day” by Tenx9 co-host Cary Gibson. 


Our thanks to our storytellers: Rob McRay, Sarah McIntyre, Jacques Sirois, Mariel Bolton, John Paul, Marini Facey, Brittany Pickering, Michael McRay, and Geoff Little.


It was the longest, hardest, coldest day in Chicago. After 23 hours of the hardest labor for your mother, you were born. It was the best day of my life.

But jury duty, a key, a lawnmower and an SUV are all you need to threaten a sunny day in Centennial Park with dark clouds of despair.

Yet somehow we got everyone home safely. Despite being apparently cursed and then crossing Lake Volta in a death ferry. On the day we woke at 4am to take our students on a field trip.

It’s funny how a simple act can impact your life. Amidst the frustration and confusion of Alzheimer’s, I got a glimpse of what a lifetime of love looks like, captured in an embrace.

This was “glamping”?! If you’re going to hike 13 miles over a mountain and through a creek, read your map, and bring a flashlight. Better still: start out early. Back at the camp, someone kissed the ground. It wasn’t me.

My friend had “first date jitters.” We decided I should lurk a short distance away, disguised as an elderly woman. Isn’t that what you would do? The hot college graduate realized why he didn’t date high school girls.

That day in the prison, I asked a man why he would say he wanted to go to hell, moments before he nearly took his own life. I gave another inmate two books. I prayed. I crouched in the corner. And wept.

It was Holy Week On The Street. $100 bought us a “pizza miracle.”  Seeing flames through the trees, one the goth guys said, “Behold. The village of the damned.” But it wasn’t. At least, not for us. We got to go home.

In a Hot Chicken Derby, the amount of hot chicken you eat is inversely proportional to how much can care for another person. Especially a drunk pop star. I wanted her to hurt, like I did. Like 4th hot chicken hurt. But it turned out I wasn’t the protagonist of this adventure. She was.

This was your day, Tenx9 Nashville. This is your story.


Cary Gibson – Something Unexpected

Here is the lovely story from Cary Gibson at Tenx9’s November event, “Something Unexpected”

How I Discovered A 14 Syllable Synonym For Love.

 :: For Joel ::

The 1964 Disney movie Mary Poppins – a political manifesto about the dangers of unfettered capitalism on the human soul – is also a story about the power of imaginative language to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.,

Crucially, it’s discussion of the word, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” instructs us,

So when the cat has got your tongue
There’s no need for dismay
Just summon up this word
And then you’ve got a lot to say

But better use it carefully
Or it may change your life
One night I said it to me girl
And now me girl’s me wife!

You may think this story hasn’t begun. It has. Hearing the story, as you imagine it, it becomes fiction and yet, no less the real for it.

Our story begins – once upon a time – the 20 May 1845 to be exact –

the day Robert Browning met Elizabeth Barrett. The courtship and marriage between these two writers was carried out secretly & by correspondence, fearing, quite rightly, that her father would disapprove. Is that true? Surely every story, once it’s told and retold, is a fable.

This story has no ending. Not yet.

If we get our wish, the ending will be fatal. Because like every love story, it will in time, one way or another, become tragedy.

This story might prove that endings are rarely endings, because unless something horrifically unexpected happens, one of us will still be here to keep telling our story.

I told our story to a woman at a party and she responded, “What a wonderful tale to tell your children.”

I don’t have any children. If I were to, well, that would certainly be something unexpected. The true story already becoming fiction – being told to children born of another’s imagination.

Ours is a story about stories & the love of stories. And the love of a very blurred line where fact and fiction meet… of embracing everything as true. Everything.

And how stories are like maps. And that the only true map would be a map on a scale of one to one: an exact replica of the place being mapped. Because when we put things into words we fall short of the truth.  A story is an impartial map. And everything is fiction.

Where else could I begin?

Where and when we met?

Where we declared love for one another?

Or, where and when we fell into love?

The first one is easy. It’s a fixed point in time and space. We met at a breakfast table. In 1998.

But the second question – that’s a little more tricky – for we were in hindsight telling each other we loved one another in so many ways before he, and certainly before I realized it. So that when he did declare it, I was shocked.

So, when did we fall in love?

That really is impossible to tell.

You’d think it was easy. Because we have pages – that run into the hundreds. Each one dated, time stamped. They tell the story of what we came to call “asynchronous symbiosis”. He in one time zone, me in another. Emails sent back and forth, across an ocean, over several months.

Those letters – contained a story. A story we wrote together, in the form of a map. A map of what we called, “the canon.” The canon, contained,  & made everything in it, real.

We fell down a rabbit hole, or perhaps jumped into a chalk picture on a pavement, that took us to a place just left of Narnia, our letters growing increasingly frequent and fervent: ‘the canon’ mapped fidelity with Ray Bradbury’s wedding vow, ‘to always love dinosaurs’, an exploration of wonder was led by Doctor Who, an invitation to pay attention by Sherlock Holmes, persistence was found in Neverwhere, & comics, hegemony was in The Matrix, or the Inklings. Political interviews danced with poetry, which rhymed with history, which argued with doctrine and laughed at certainty.

The stories shared over days, weeks, months were being added to an imaginative wiki – in which nothing gets left out and everything is interlinked, connected by dotted lines…

And somewhere in the midst of that map, we began to write ourselves.

Letters (written weekly, then twice weekly, then daily, then twice daily) wove our  own stories with every story written since Homer’s Odyssey – to name just a few – marked in invisible ink where you and me, was becoming “us”.

Because reading those letters I cannot tell where we slipped from friendship and respect into shared meaning making and then flourished into mutuality, particularity, intentionality, fidelity, and continuance… LOVE.

So, perhaps we’ll say that, ‘This is how it happened…’

That on the 12th September 2009, my friend was on his way to a family wedding in Texas.

The night before he’d been out for dinner with a friend and after cycling home in pouring rain, sent me a poem – A Ritual to Read to Each Other by William Stafford, which opens,


If you don’t know the kind of person I am,

and I don’t know the kind of person you are,

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home, we may miss our star.

I woke in Dublin to that mail and sitting at my writing desk, I sent back a response to say that his nephew was marrying his bride on the anniversary of the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, whose story of tragedy and hope is the source of some of the most famous lines in English romantic poetry…

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Barrett’s 43rd sonnet was appropriate for a wedding day. But this is what I then wrote to him:

Barrett & Browning also have significance because they surely are now living happily forever in the land that was created, and everyday grows and breathes, with the words and spirit of personal correspondence. A part of the canon-map that is as real and true and significant to that world of words as the terrain made from poems or audio-plays or novels.

(I like to think it is reached by mail-coach. And to reach that genre, one passes through cities built with office managers’ post-it notes and memos. Cities, which are saved from being eternally grey cold edifices because they are decorated by notes from loving spouses and children’s paintings sneakily slipped into briefcases on Monday mornings.

The city parks trees are made of the quotes and ideas and vacation postcards that are stuck on fridges. And standing atop soap boxes on the street corners, orators entertain and inspire passers-by with recitations of mottos from magnets – no longer tired clichés but spoken each time as if it were the first, and heard with eternally new ears.


And the land beyond – that is built on personal letters exchanged between families and lovers and friends and strangers kept apart by distance, and estrangement and war and prison walls – is spoken of by those who visit it as the most breathtaking place they ever saw:

Carved from such raw, unedited, deep emotions of love and fear and patience and hope that its majestic beauty is almost too much to bear. That’s the place where Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning dwell.)

A few short hours later, in Nashville, after very little sleep, his shoes not yet dry, and rushing to get to the airport for his flight to Dallas, he wrote back a brief, confessional note that irrevocably altered everything, with this closing line,

‘Love, which I’m using very cary-fully, and which is definitely changing my life’



Faced with this imaginative declaration verging on a proposal, written only for me, in canonical terms that were unmistakably acknowledging I was already in some deep sense, his girl, I’d like to say I reacted with eloquence.

But I could only muster a hurried,


Holy crap, Batman.


Followed by 6 smiley faces.


Yes. That probably covers whatever words fail me right now…


Never have I felt the weight of the phrase,

“I think we are on the same page…” and am struck by the weight of it and

with speechlessness, which also seems to put us on something like the same page.


I just realized I have no map. I hope you packed crayons and some paper….

With the engine running outside, suitcase packed, he responded,


I do have a map. With lots of dotted lines. And boxes and boxes of

crayons, all of which are also, yours.