Author Interviews/Features


Meet Cynthia Trenshaw

Cynthia Trenshaw    Cynthia Trenshaw earned national certification as hospital chaplain and as massage therapist. She holds WA state certifications as professional guardian, guardian ad litem, and nursing assistant-registered. She holds a master's degree in theology (MTh) from Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. Three of the chapters from Meeting in the Margins have been published in an anthology and a literary journal, and her essays and poetry have been published in a variety of magazines and journals over the past ten years. She blogs regularly on her website.

Read Lee Ambrose's review of Meeting in the Margins for

Interviewed by Lee Ambrose
Posted on 08/04/2015

You lead a very busy professional life. Tell us about your writing process and how you fit that in with everything else you do.

Oh, how I wish I didn't have to "fit it in." I wish that writing for pleasure and as a spiritual exercise could be the whole "work" of my day. However, my professional life pays my bills, and also gives me opportunities to write, and write well. As a Guardian ad Litem for the Superior Courts of several counties, I am appointed to investigate pending guardianship cases; I inform the Court of my findings and my recommendations as to whether a guardian is or is not needed for an alleged incapacitated person. I am, in effect, the eyes and the ears of the Court, and as such I choose to write my reports in a narrative (yet still professional) style that allows the Judge to "know" the person and their circumstances as personally as possible without the Judge actually having met them. Some of the highest praise I've gotten for my writing has unexpectedly come from the Bench. When my profession and my passion for writing can merge like that, well... it don't get no better'n that!

In addition to my professional writing I have made a commitment to myself to write one essay blog a month on my website (it's amazing how fast four weeks can pass by, and suddenly another blog is due!). Almost daily I write in my journal. And at all times I have a small notepad and pen in my pocket to record "noticings" to write about "someday." My Sunday mornings are for writing poetry—the writing I love most of all.

Three of the chapters in the book were published at an earlier time and in other publications. Was it always your intent to write a book or were these works the catalyst for the book?

A book was always the goal. But if you saw the many, vastly different iterations it has gone through, you'd laugh! My ultimate hope was to publish a collection of stand-alone vignettes, portraits of the people I have met in the margins, and to describe them so vividly that the lessons to be learned from them would be obvious to the reader without further explanation. I wanted to get me out of the way, to let the people's lives speak for themselves. But the early readers of my manuscript had too many questions that detracted from the vignettes: Wasn't I afraid? Wasn't I repulsed? What training did I have? And why on earth was I on the streets of San Francisco giving massages to homeless people?

So the vignettes were merged into a larger book that contained a little of my history, some of my perspectives, and what I learned from my encounters, woven in among the stories. There is still a taste of what I originally intended, however, in the third section of the book, a small collection of vignettes with discussion questions. As I was trudging my way to the final version of the book, I had opportunities to share a few of the vignettes with other publications. I am glad those stories—one from my hospital work, one from in-home caregiving, and one from a homeless shelter—got to see the light of day long before Meeting in the Margins was complete.

What is your favorite chapter? Why?

That would be the Prologue, "Gloria—An Encounter." If I'd never published anything other than that, I'd have been satisfied. Again, it was responses from readers of early drafts that made me rethink this story many times. They had said, "Ugh! why would I want to read about touching a prostitute's filthy feet?" and, "You say this was 'blissful' for you, but I don't believe you. You'll have to convince me, show me how that's possible."

So I agonized: How can I get the reader "into" my space, "into" my hands as I massage this woman's feet, in such a way that they begin to understand how bliss might be possible? To do this I had to abandon just "telling" the story. I had to re-enter the experience of twelve years before, had to go deep into my own body memory and be there again with Gloria, had to consult my belly, make it answer my questions: "Where are your hands now? What are you feeling now? How is this for you in this moment? Name the emotions that are here. Where inside you do you feel this?" It was hard work. It was like having my feet held to the fire by Gloria herself. And, after days of re-experiencing my time with her, finally I was able to present the experience on paper. The writing came from my belly directly through my fingers to the keyboard, bypassing my mind altogether.

And the other reason Gloria's story is my favorite part of the book is because it was she who first articulated the understanding that what had happened between her feet and my hands was far more than "just massage"—it was a spiritual connection, and it was, in her astonishing word, "reciprocal."

Throughout the book, you introduce us to several of your "teachers"—the people with whom you interact on deeply personal levels in the margins. Is there one particular person who has had the biggest impact on you throughout this experience?

I loved them all (well, almost all) when I was with them, and all have become part of the very fiber of my being, part of my way of understanding our world.

But two come to mind immediately. One is Charlie, the man hospitalized with AIDS, through whom I first realized that I wanted to learn massage therapy. And the other is Jim, whom I saw more regularly than any other street person, and whom I came to love deeply. His wisdom, his faith, his goodness of heart completely changed my understanding of what it means to live on the streets.

You point out to your readers that the margins are not confined to the streets but exist in any number of venues. Do you still work in a variety of marginalized settings or are you focusing on one particular type of margin and its population these days?

I work now with elders who have lost some or all of their capacity to make good decisions for their medical, or financial, or property care. I do this both as a Court-appointed Guardian ad Litem and as a Medical Advocate chosen by the individuals before they have a health crisis or begin to lose their capacity. I also work now with people who are dying, either in their homes or in our local residential hospice. And always I try to be open to whoever walks across the path of my day in need of being seen—to witness them, whether or not we ever interact in person.

Have you maintained long-term relationships with any of the individuals you highlighted in the book?

No. Most of the people of the streets were difficult to find even a second time. And many of the people about whom I wrote have died. I did return once to San Francisco, and tried to find Jim. I had brought along a carton of his favorite cigarettes, but I couldn't find him in the places where he used to hang out. So I entrusted the carton to someone who said they would see him that night—whether or not the cigarettes were ever delivered, I don't know. It was probably just as well that I didn't find Jim—our parting when I left the Bay Area was painful for both of us, and to meet again and have to part again might have been wrenching.

Of course I am still in touch with my mentor, Mary Ann Finch, who continues her fierce and unconventional advocacy for the most destitute people of San Francisco.

Tell us about the individuals who accompanied you out onto the streets—like Dale. How are the "teams" determined?

Dale was a part-time employee of Care Through Touch Institute. He was not a massage therapist, but he had more street smarts and street experience than anyone else we knew; he knew the underbelly of San Francisco like no other. The rest of us were volunteers, trained massage practitioners who'd been with CTI for varying periods of time. When and with whom we went out to offer caring touch on any given day depended on our own schedules and how much time we had to offer. If Dale was available, one or two of us would go with him in his truck to encampments so deeply hidden that we'd never have found them (nor dared to) on our own. If he was not working that day we'd pair up and go to places that were more familiar. For a while I was working about twelve or fifteen hours a week, and often I'd go by myself to offer massage in United Nations Plaza and similar public places that were well-populated. It was all pretty spontaneous, trusting that we'd end up where and when we were "supposed" to be at any given time.

In the chapter "Do You Dare?" you point to two tasks that can help someone prepare to go to the margins. Were these tasks given to you in preparation for your own introduction to the margins? Or is this a gift to your readers from the hard lessons you had to learn as you went along the journey?

The task of developing street smarts I learned from Mary Ann, and Dale, from Father River Sims, and from the people of the streets themselves. The basics were taught to me as I began my work; the refinement of those skills came with time, and the confidence that comes from experience.

The task of clarifying my fears is simply something that made my street work (and my life) easier for me. To ask myself, "Now, what am I really afraid of here?" was much more useful than whirling in a nameless amalgam of terror. But I had never really articulated this skill until I wrote it for the book.

It is evident from your writing that the work you've done in the margins has been very rewarding. What was the most rewarding experience found in the actual writing of this book?

The hardest part of writing this book, and the most rewarding when I succeeded, was finding a way to put myself into the book without getting in the way. It was learning to write in such a way that the reader "has" an experience without telling them what they should be feeling. It was finding the source of my body memories in my belly, and writing from there. That was rewarding.

And, in the end, literally at the last comb-through of the text at the publisher's "drop-deadline," the very most rewarding thing was pushing back from my computer and weeping, not from exhaustion, not because the project was finally complete, but from sheer joy at discovering that I had written a really good book, and that I love it.

Are you currently working on any other writing projects?

The thing that I "can't not do" is writing poetry. Many times a week I add a few of my "noticings" into a poetry sketchbook—a 5x8 blank book usually used by artists to sketch ideas for paintings. Instead of visual images I enter words and phrases and ideas that might evolve into poems. I have two books nearly filled now—several hundred "sketches." Every Sunday morning I spend two hours writing drafts of poems from these sketchbooks. Once a quarter I go away somewhere (sometimes just a few miles away to a friend's over-garage apartment; sometimes to a cheap kitchenette motel somewhere on the Olympic peninsula) to spend a week doing nothing but eating, sleeping, and writing poetry.

Now that Meeting in the Margins is nearly launched, I am beginning work on a collection of poetry, hoping to publish it in 2016. In the meantime I'm offering poems to literary journals and magazines of all sorts.

And after that? Well, there are a lot more margins to be illuminated, a lot more stories from those margins waiting to be told...