The holy, painful, necessary work of witness

Content note: domestic violence

I get poems stuck in my head the way most people hum catchy songs. It’s been this way for as long as I remember: I learned my first poem when I was 3 or 4 years old and I’ve just never stopped. The poem in my head this week is “The Low Road” by Marge Piercy — and particularly these lines:

“What can they do
to you? Whatever they want. …
…Alone you can fight,
you can refuse, you can
take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.”

On Monday, I read one of my poems*** at the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence vigil for individuals in Maryland who have lost their lives to domestic violence. State legislators and other public officials spoke and were in attendance. It was in one of the old legislative buildings in Annapolis and it just felt kinda official and like A Big Deal.  I was nervous, even though I had read this poem publicly before.

Here’s what I learned:

From July 1, 2015 – June 30, 2016, there were 55 deaths related to domestic violence (DV) in Maryland. 34 people were killed by their intimate partners, including: 18 women and 1 teenage girl killed by their current or ex-boyfriend; 7 women killed by their current or ex-husband; 5 men and 1 woman killed by their current or ex-girlfriend; and 2 men killed by their wives. 13 domestic abusers died: 13 men died by murder-suicide or attempted murder-suicide; 2 men committed murder-suicide and arson; and 1 man was killed by his victim in self-defense. 8 other people were killed, including 2 children and 2 bystanders.*

Of these deaths, 58% of them (32 total) involved the use of a gun. 47 children were left behind. This is up from 42 deaths last year. 18 of the 55 deaths happened in Prince George’s County. 9 were in Baltimore County, 5 in Baltimore City, 6 in Montgomery County, 1 in Howard County. Most of the victims were between 41 and 50, but one was 61 or older and 3 were under 18.* DV does not know boundaries of race, age, socioeconomic status, disability status, or sexual orientation.

So why did I just write all of this out?

The most important thing I was reminded of on Monday was the importance of bearing witness. On Monday, I sat and listened to the names of 55 people who lived in my state who were killed by someone close to them. I watched as their name, age, the way they died (gun, asphyxiation, knife, etc), and a picture of them full of life appeared on the screen. I watched as 55 people holding red posterboard hearts declaring the names, ages, and ways the individual died filled the room. I watched surviving family members, including children, stand up and hold a heart with the name of a loved one. I watched children probably no more than 10 bravely wipe away their tears.

moonI’ve worked with survivors of domestic violence before. I volunteered at a DV shelter in college, taking the children living in the shelter to the park, playing games, and doing arts and crafts. I’ve worked with patients who are in actively abusive situations and assisted with safety planning — both plans for adults and for children. I’ve attended events in the past where women and men speak out about their experiences surviving domestic violence.

But for some reason, nothing prepared me for this moment: a woman came to me afterwards, escorted by one of the staff from MNADV and another woman. The staff member introduced her to me as “a fan.” The woman approached me shyly at first, saying quietly, “I just wanted to thank you for your poem…it was really powerful and…” she paused.

“Can I hug you?” she asked.

She gave me a hug. A big, long hug that felt like her soul was grabbing me.

“I’m a survivor,” she told me. “And your words were so powerful. They just really spoke to me…when you say ‘No More,’ I just…YES….YES….I…YES. How did you even think of those words?” she asked.

“That’s what we want, isn’t it? No more. No more violence.” I reached out and took her hand.

“I want no more violence,” she said. She paused. “I….is there a way I can have a copy of your poem? I really want to be able to read it again and again. So I remember.”

“Absolutely, do you want my copy? Take my copy.” I took the copy from my purse and handed it to her.

Her face broke into an amazing, powerful smile. “Really?”

“It belongs to you,” I said. She hugged me again. Tight. So tight.


“A poem,” I wrote, “is so small —
it is only words on a page, spoken and then
gone; I want to be large.
The vastness of my embodying reaching
out so I can expand to exist
beyond this…”

In the face of so much grief — in the face of the pain and suffering I see in this world on a daily basis, I frequently feel so small. It often feels that words are my only way of impacting change, and this feels inconsequential in the face of so much need. Most days, I can’t even own the title of poet, and I’m lucky if I can get words on the page without making myself ridiculously frustrated.

So to feel that my words — that these silly words written, and then spoken, could make a difference — it was a sense of expansion and existence beyond into something that could be…well something. Something that was potentially meaningful.  This only happened because I was willing to bear witness.

In my poem, I wrote: “…take my hand and we will makegirl-with-the-moon-as-balloon_1048-2663
the moon. Let’s beam her large,
together, rising holy into the darkness…”

This is what I want for us. I want this hand-holding, beaming, rising holy to happen for our world, and I believe it happens when we are in relationship.  I believe it happens when we truly witness one another.  This is how we will save ourselves and those around us. This is the only way we will save ourselves and our world. It is the only way we can ensure we are all at the table: when we have witnessed the pain and joy and suffering and truth of people who are not us, and yet we allow their story to become part of us because we have born deep witness. It is painful. It is necessary. It is holy, painful, necessary work.

When we join hands, when we make the moon and beam her large, it is as Marge Piercy said, isn’t it?

“…It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again and they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.”

Let’s practice the art of bearing witness, and then, let us speak those truths. Let us define our we, and let us always mean one more. Let’s make sure everyone is truly at the table. Let’s keep tying our heartstrings to moonbeams and rising – ever rising – from the darkness.


*All information from here:

** If you feel you may be in an abusive relationship, you can find help here:
Maryland Resources:
National Resource: National Domestic Violence Hotline – 1-800-799-SAFE
TTY# for National Domestic Violence Hotline – 1-800-787-3224

***Link to my full poem:


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