Many Doors

One could say the things we write are never unique. How could they be, when there are basic human experiences that provide the material for us all? We make things out of the basics the way a chef makes a complex dish from basic ingredients.

You never know what will reach someone or what will be the most effective way of accessing the heart. Recently, I heard about a submissions call for poems to be used in a gallery show about women’s issues. I decided to write something new for it, but as I sat and pondered several ideas I felt stuck.

There was no doubt I have strong feelings about these issues, yet as I thought of them I felt a bit numb and words did not flow. I could write as a woman who has experienced misogyny and internalized misogyny…yet nothing was flowing. I could write from the perspective of a disabled person terrified of a harsh future in my country…yet nothing was flowing. It went on like this, until I started thinking about my daughter and how these issues relate to her. Like a dam breaking, the block dissolved and words came. On that particular day, that perspective was the way in to my emotions and my words.

This is why the arts are important. This is why we must never stop expressing the same idea in millions of different ways. Every soul has many doors, and we cannot know which ones may open and when. We cannot know which of our poems or paintings or stories is a key to one of them.

How to Take a Compliment

I know I am not the only one who has trouble with this concept. I’ve actually worked pretty hard to learn to respond to a compliment with a simple “thank you” and put a period at the end of it. Just say “thank you” instead of making some self-deprecating remark, or some remark about how it’s no big deal, or some remark about how I could or should have done it better and this is why that didn’t happen.

I am getting a refresher course in this skill as I continue to get positive feedback about my poetry from people. I went to a reading last night and had several people respond positively to my recent work. Also, I recently had a poem accepted for a gallery show in June that is going to feature artwork inspired by local poets’ work about women’s issues. Right now, as I write this, some Bay Area artist is working on a piece that is inspired by my poem. My poem is going to be on the wall of the gallery for several weeks along with the artwork. I’m going to be reading at the gallery opening. How crazy is that?

I noticed that after learning my poem was in, I had a tendency to minimize it when telling people. I emphasize that it’s just a small gallery or just a local thing. Why do I do this? The truth is, this is awesome and I feel honored to be a part of it. It doesn’t matter that I’m a relative newbie in the poetry community. It doesn’t matter who else is in the show. I sent in work and somebody thought one of them was a good fit for their vision of the show. I’m allowed to feel good about that.

So are you, poets out there. You’re allowed to send your work out if that’s something you enjoy. You’re allowed to read at open mics. And when you get a compliment about your work, you’re allowed to accept it.

The Fear of Sentimentality

Recently, I finished a first draft of a poem called “Ladders.” I liked it a lot when I finished it, but now realize that I am hesitant to read it at an open mic or send it anywhere because I’m afraid that it will be heard as sentimental, schmaltzy, cheesy, overly inspirational, or other adjectives that might relegate it to a realm better suited for Hallmark cards than serious poetry.

Why am I afraid of letting some of my poetry reflect the unabashedly inspirational parts of my writing psyche? My prose essays drip with it; I have no hesitation about expressing fierce compassion towards others, trying to spread illogical hope, or digging for beauty in dark places. Why am I afraid to let more of it into my poetry; that a poem speaking inspiration directly to others will be dismissed as too sentimental?

I have spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m a person who has tasted a tiny bit of nonlinearity in this universe, and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m passionate about giving others a feeling of acceptance, wholeness, being valued, or just being seen, and I’m not ashamed of that. My poetry should not be ashamed of that either.

It’s appropriate for me to look at a draft and ask if the tone is what I want the tone to be. It’s appropriate for me to ask myself if the poem needs revision to change the tone to one I think will be more effective. But these questions should not be asked out of fear.

Stream of Consciousness

For a week or so I’ve been trying to do daily personal writing in the style of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. In this book, she recommends a thing called “morning pages.” It’s supposed to be three pages of complete stream of consciousness, done without any pauses or editing. You’re not supposed to stop, even if the result contains things like “pause…mind blank, eager to be done, blah blah blah why can’t I think of a single thing to write right now?”

She’s not alone in recommending stream-of-consciousness writing, or course. A poetry exercise I read about calls for ten days of ten pages a day, to be examined later for potential poem material.

I chose 1000 words for my daily target, which may or may not be as many words as three pages but it is a nice round number. The new writing software I’m working with lets you set session targets, which is perfect.

I’m trying to do this to help with my resistance to writing anything that is not meant for a fate involving other people. I’m also doing it because it is supposed to be good for creativity. You’re advised to put the pages away when you finish them and not look at or reread them for a while. For me, I imagine rereading them after a month or so and highlighting phrases I think would be useful for an essay or poem.

I have two main fears about doing this. Firstly, I am afraid that doing it will exhaust my writing energy for the day and I will spend less time working on other things. Secondly, I’m afraid that I will fail at doing it consistently and experience the familiar negative emotions that come with starting and abandoning something.

The Importance of Being Evil

I cannot be a whole person unless I understand and accept that I am partially evil. This understanding took me years of work, and the acceptance of it will probably be a lifelong task. 

The idea that we all have evil is not new, but I am not concerned with that. Nor am I taking on the endless task of defining what exactly evil is and is not. I am only speaking for myself: some of the things I personally define as evil undeniably exist in my psyche. There is some dark crap in there, and it’s not going to go away. Self-improvement and spiritual work can help me improve my behavior, but there are some things that cannot be changed. I will never be pure. 

Why is understanding this so important to me? It’s hard to explain. It’s hard to explain the huge leap in self-acceptance I made when I was able to incorporate these parts of myself into the whole. It’s hard to explain how much closer it makes me feel to the rest of humanity (a feeling of closeness I need, since I so often feel alienated.)

Instead of my self-esteem being based on inherent goodness, I can base it on my behavior. Now I don’t have to feel like an impostor every time an uncharitable thought or angry fantasy comes into my mind. 

I can be angry at people doing bad things and still understand that I am not a different species from them. I can know that however dark and twisted the labyrinth of their actions and motivations might be, it is still a human labyrinth and I have one too. I can understand that I am just as capable of terrible things as anyone else given a different set of circumstances, different brain chemistry, different trauma–even different past life baggage if you’re into that kind of thing. I’m not better than anyone. I am a potential supervillain.

Battling addiction, mental illness and general despair requires a powerful sense of self. Anything that makes me more connected with that sense of self has the potential to save my life and give something to the world. I’d rather be a partially evil person trying to act non-evil than someone whose useless quest to be good helped to kill them.

Non-Zero

“Just get a non-zero amount of words on a page.”

I have a series of files containing the scraps of future poems. Some files have nothing but the poem title. I open one up, stare at it, and if nothing seems to be happening I close it back up again.

I do this because it is a lot less intimidating to look at one of these than to look at a blank page. The act of establishing a place for the piece to come gets me over a psychological bump about starting something. I’ll put in the words or phrase that inspired the idea, give the project a title, and that is that. Sometimes I will let myself stare at the file for a few more minutes and see if something arrives–but that is not the plan. 

The philosophy of non-zero applies to other aspects of my life. Just do a non-zero amount of exercise. Just make a non-zero effort to reach out socially. Setting the bar that low can get me past inertia, and the non-zero amount might grow. If it doesn’t, it is still better than zero.

Ah, the psychological tricks we need to play on ourselves! What would it be like to be someone who just decides to do things and does them?

Not Enough

How often we get stuck not doing anything because we have been taught that whatever we do will not be enough?

I drag myself to a support group meeting. More frequent attendees ask “Where have you been?” I manage to get to a poetry reading. Other poets ask “Too bad you missed yesterday’s event, are you going to make it to tomorrow’s?” I stumble into tai chi. Classmates say “Haven’t seen you for a while, are you coming to the workshop?”

Now, to some people, all of these things might have a very different connotation. These comments might simply mean that these people like me and want to see more of me. But do you think I interpret it that way? No, I interpret it to mean that I am not doing enough, not being enough, not giving enough to that particular community.

It’s easy for me to think that if I compare myself to people who have thrown themselves deeply into one community and seem to devote themselves to it on a daily basis. If I set a standard like that for myself, a standard that fits neither my health nor my current lifestyle nor my devotion to more than one thing, I will always feel deficient. 

If I have the clarity to question my thinking, I see that my feeling of constant deficiency is not fact. I also see that it cannot be fixed by doing more; that I would still manage to find a way to see myself as deficient because the idea is ingrained deeply enough to defy logic.

For me, and for many, many others who are conditioned the same way and surrounded by a culture that continues to encourage the deep belief, the automatic assumption of deficiency is one of the enemies we battle daily. Like our other demons, it is the enemy of creativity and joy. It wants us silent, bound or dead. What it does not want is for us to get up and do something.

Ant Logic

I remind myself again and again about how subjective poetry is. How it’s possible for the same poem to be liked, ignored, sneered at, or adored by different people. When I forget, I think of a poem called Ant Logic. It was written by Susan H. Maurer and published in Rattle Magazine in 2016.

The poem consists solely of the phrase “ant logic” repeated many times.

I liked it. I thought it was quirky and cute. But I have to admit, I was surprised to see it published in a prestigious magazine that receives thousands of submissions for every issue and has turned down pretty much every poet I know.

Well, an editor took a liking to that poem and decided they wanted it. They didn’t need a reason; they might not even be sure why they liked it. They just did.

So Ant Logic has come to be an encouraging symbol for me of why I should submit pieces to publications or contests that appeal to me. It’s impossible for me to know what will appeal to an editor or judge.

So send your Ant Logic in. Read your Ant Logic at an open mic. Be proud of your Ant Logic.

Through the Clouds

I want to believe I’ll be creative for the rest of my life.

I want to believe that if I get very ill I’ll use the time and the change in perspective to write, or at least expand my mind by learning a new language or something. I want to believe that if I die of natural causes at an advanced age, my feeble fingers or quavering voice will still be trying to communicate. I want to believe that my mind is and always will be more powerful than my body.

I want to believe my drive toward thought and clarity can always overcome issues with my body. And there is some truth and merit to the idea; there’s truth in the idea that my mind and soul have a great deal of power. There’s truth in the idea that the battle for clarity is not hopeless and that it’s well worth fighting.

That belief, however, is not always backed up by actual experience. My experience has been that my mind’s activities are linked to the functioning of a physical object known as my brain. This organ, whether I like it or not, is a part of my physical body. It’s affected by every other organ I have. It relies on the contents of my bloodstream for oxygen and nutrients. When my body gets sick, or is affected by hormone fluctuations, or takes a new medicine, my brain gets a different cocktail. There’s a tipping point to these things beyond which it’s very hard to muster enough energy or original thought for any productive act.

The truth is that for someone like me, the state of optimal body and brain function is more like a theoretical norm than an actual one in the sense that there always seems to be something going on. As I age and experience more physical issues and age-related cognitive decline, the clouds may get thicker. This thought scares me quite a bit.

As I often do when I feel fear, I grope for a metaphor. Today it’s astronomy.

Astronomers, as least the old-school or amateur types who must perform their observations from the surface of the Earth, try do their field observations on clear nights. When it is cloudy, they reschedule, because the portable instruments they have may not be powerful enough to get anything useful through the cloud cover.

But what if the climate changed and it was always, or nearly always, overcast? They’d have two choices: give up astronomy or build more powerful instruments (or do all their observations from space, but in this metaphor that seems like a post-death thing and we are looking at this lifetime.)

Even if they began to build better instruments, they’d have to accept that they now get less data for more work. They’d have to decide it was still worth the work and dedication.

I have to accept a similar thing. I have to believe that an effort I make on one of my bad days is still vastly, stupendously superior to doing nothing.

Everyday Resurrections

How have you come back from the dead lately?

Today is Easter Sunday, and some people are celebrating the event of their savior returning to life after being crucified. Easter is also, according to some, an evolution of far older spring holidays celebrating other resurrections as well as the general truth of nature’s resurgence into new life after the sleep of winter.

Celebrating resurrection in any form appeals to me. What greater cause for joy can there be than to see something dead now living; something asleep now awake. For me, one day a year to celebrate resurrection is not enough.

How many times a year do I come back to life? How many times in a year do I emerge from the metaphorical tomb and feel the sweet air on my skin? Each time I come back from a dark phase, I step into a new life with new hope. Never mind that my enjoyment of it might be temporary–I am here now; the darkness did not kill me this time. Once again I see beauty; once again I feel gratitude.

The passing of a dark phase isn’t the only kind of resurrection I experience. I awaken from a small death when I devote myself to learning something new or succeed in putting down a behavior that’s sucking the life out of me. I awaken from one when I reconnect in any way with the part of me that can’t die and remember that it exists. I awaken when that spark of knowledge reignites a flame in the dark.

Just Sick Enough

When you have a psychiatric diagnosis, there are times when it’s obvious you need help. Other times, it might not be as obvious.

I had to jump through some hoops recently to get seen by a psychiatrist with my new insurance. Among these hoops were multiple rounds of the same questions about the nature and severity of my symptoms.  As I tried to answer as patiently and honestly as possible, I was aware of feeling anxiety about whether I would be deemed “sick enough” to be worthy of care.

You see, although I have been under some form of care for many years, it’s been seven years since the last time I was in a hospital outpatient program and nine years since the last time I was hospitalized outright. I’m only on one relatively benign mood stabilizer.

In recent years, I have been aware of how lucky I am to be where I am. I work hard not to throw this good luck away by falling back into addiction or other self-destructive behavior. But should “doing well” mean I don’t need help any more? Especially with bipolar, where patients are quite likely to float out the door while in a happy place, stop their meds, and wind up in the ER?

So it’s a dance. Be sure to appear “sick enough” to be taken seriously, without appearing so ill that you get a level of intervention you don’t need or want. Be eloquent enough about what goes on in your head to make sure someone knows you aren’t “fixed.”

Why? Why not just have enjoy having fewer appointments and one less thing on your current record? My reason is simple: my condition means that matter how well I am doing, it is possible for me to have a serious episode and need more help. Having a psychiatrist of record means having someone to call for an urgent meds adjustment. In the event of dire need, it means I have a name to give the ER staff.

It’s regrettable that people like me must defend our need to be responsible and prepared for trouble.

The Things I Must Not Write

Some poems, and stories, and essays of mine are not ready to be written because they concern other people too directly. It’s a pity, because I’m sure they would be rich, and dark, and searingly honest. I know some people write memoirs and let the chips fall where they may, but for me it would feel wrong to write really raw stuff specifically about people who are still alive.

Part of my decision is based on fear, I know. The fears many of us have about confronting sources of our deep and sometimes illogical terrors. I’m all about trying to face my fears more often, but I also know my own limits and know that pushing certain things would harm people who don’t have the capacity to deal with it.

I’ve sometimes been advised to write pieces and simply not share them with anyone–don’t read them, don’t submit them, don’t self-publish them. Occasionally I do write some things for a recovery activity or when working with some kind of counselor. In general, though, I feel frustrated at the idea of writing things I am supposed to keep secret.

It doesn’t make sense. Journaling is so highly recommended for creative types; why can’t I get on board with private writing? Is it that I have a hard time giving myself permission to create without some small chance of it enriching others? Or is it just ego?

Tea Works Better When You Drink It

Pretty frequently, my daughter reminds me that the untouched tea, or coffee, or snack near me is doing me no good sitting there.

By the same token, getting my writing seen and appreciated by more people is a lot more likely if I actually send it out. Submitting pieces might not lead to them being accepted by a certain publication…but not submitting them definitely won’t. Reading at an open mic might not help me get new connections and meet people who like what I have to say…but not reading definitely won’t.

Recently, I sent out a couple of different pieces in response to submission calls I had heard about. Just local things, but I was very excited when one was accepted. I would like to get into a more regular habit of submitting work. I have everything I need to do it; I just need to acquire some discipline and get into a rhythm.

It helps when I have a clear notion of why I want to submit work to publications; what I want to get out of the process. I suppose what I want most is to be more open to possibilities. Also (and this part is important) I enjoy a childlike pleasure in having something out there because it means there’s always the possibility of a nice surprise coming.

The Trap Door

An old dating show had prospects standing on a trap door above a dunk tank while being asked questions. At any moment, the contestant asking could push a button and splash! It was all over and the next person would move to stand on the trap door.

I often feel as if I’m in that situation. The feeling grows stronger when I meet and interact with new people, especially if I have a strong desire for those new people to like me and want to see me again. Everyone can have the “If they really knew me, they wouldn’t like me” feelings, but mine tend to center on a few specific things.

For example, yesterday I spent the day with a group of writers at a workshop (an awesome experience, and I am so grateful I was invited despite my lack of funds.) The social part also went well, but I did have one instance of the “trap door” feeling. It happened during lunch when the topic of psych meds came up briefly and several people expressed the common attitude of all psych meds being bullshit and/or evil.

The gears rumbled to life in my head and I began to project. So, if and when they know that I’m someone who chooses to take medication, they will have contempt for me. They’ll decide I am weak, or lazy, or unwilling to face difficult times, or just a compliant sheep controlled by Big Pharma. They’ll write me off. And if they would write me off for this, how quickly will they write me off once they know I am a drug addict in recovery? Should I speak up and tell all of these things about myself as early as possible so they can go ahead and write me off instead of wasting their time?

I felt the trap door opening under my feet. I felt the familiar brick settling onto my chest. I felt the familiar loneliness that tells me “You don’t belong. Don’t get fooled into thinking you could.” 

These moments are part of life for me, and I try not to let them control my actions. I try not to let them trigger defensive counterjudgments or mentally put people into boxes, but it’s hard sometimes. I’m aware that when I do that I am judging people in the same way I don’t want them to judge me.

Poetry…Because Drugs Didn’t Work Out

I used this phrase when meeting my new psychiatrist and got a quizzical look. He’d just asked me what coping mechanisms I use to deal with my symptoms. I’ve used the phrase before with others, or referred to poetry or writing as my “newest vice.” Some people get it right away, some don’t.

It’s like one of my favorite snarky T-shirts, that says “Writing…Because Murder is Wrong.” That one either gets a laugh or a vaguely uncomfortable look.

Poetry, and other writing, are indeed a coping mechanism for me. Doing them is part of my ongoing efforts to break the old patterns that want to keep me silent, ashamed, and stuck. Doing them can help me get through the disorientation or despair of an episode, or at least give me reference points before and after.

Poetry, and all art, is a form of therapy as well as whatever other purposes it has. Some might sneer at those who seem focused on this aspect of it, or draw distinctions between such people and “real” artists. I believe there’s a place for a critical voice in our process, but I also believe there’s a special corner in some hypothetical hell reserved for those whose contempt or elitism discourage creation.

The word therapy comes from the Greek root for to serve. Psychotherapy translates to serving the soul. Whether it’s our soul or others, or what the ratio is, the service exists. When we create something–anything–we influence the world.

Reminders

No matter how well I am doing, I must not forget what I am. No matter how much I am enjoying being a poet, or how invested I am in being a mother, I must not forget the conditions that have the ability to destroy it all if I don’t deal with them as responsibly as I can.

I live with a mental illness, and I’m an addict in recovery. These things become less and less obvious to people as I rack up more years clean and have the good fortune to stay out of the hospital for years as well. But serious mental health crisis always has the potential to happen–and, of course, relapsing back into my addiction would bring all my progress crashing down on myself and my loved ones.

Many of the people I meet these days don’t know about my past. Sometimes I am nervous about if, or when, or how to talk about it. I don’t know to what degree I will encounter stigma. Sometimes I expect, on some level, to be “written off” as a new acquaintance gets to know me. Not that I can’t be written off for many other things about myself, or just for general social awkwardness.

At any rate, my learning and growth have to be balanced with continued maintenance. New adventures have to be undertaken with an honest knowledge of my limitations. Even when I can “pass” for normal, I have to remember and accept that I am not.

Through a New Lens

Recently I went to a reading at a local art gallery. Poets had been requested to choose a work in the gallery and write a piece inspired by it. At the reading, the artists were present and heard our work.

Few things are as personal as a painting to an artist, or a poem to a poet. I had done ekphrastic (inspired by a piece of art) poems before, but I had never done one that would be heard by the actual artist. I worried that they might dislike my work or be disappointed that my take on the piece was so different from theirs.

As it turned out, the artist did like my poem. I got to talk with her after the reading and she said the poem gave her a different appreciation for her painting. How wonderful! It gave me real satisfaction.

However, it’s important for me to remember that if she hadn’t liked it, it would have been all right. I would have regretted it, but it wouldn’t mean I had failed.

Why? Because poetry, like other forms of art, is the ultimate in subjectivity. Any piece will appeal to and repel someone on this earth. We need no justification for our reactions or our opinions. This is what makes the arts special.

Time’s Up

When you’re an introvert, interacting with others is subject to a clock in your head. At a certain point, a timer gives a gentle chime. “That’s all the time we have,” it says, like a therapist at the end of the fifty minutes.

We can ignore the timer, to a degree, if what we are doing or who we are conversing with is important to us. We pay a price later by having to spend even more recovery time in the social equivalent of the fetal position.

For me, part of my trouble in the past was that I didn’t realize I was an introvert, especially because I can be very interactive at times and don’t fear things like public speaking. I just thought I had bouts of “laziness.” It took me a while to see the pattern of them and understand myself a little better.

I understand now that introversion doesn’t mean what I used to think it meant. It’s not shyness or social awkwardness, although those can sometimes go with it. It has to do with the level of stimulation we can handle and the level of our need to focus within.

Learning to accept myself as an introvert is the same as learning to accept myself as an addict, or a person with mental health issues, or anything else. It’s just what I am, and it has its own advantages and disadvantages. Fairness, or desirability, or how well it fits with my culture and circumstances, is irrelevant.

Why to Go to a Poetry Reading

So I recently gave tips on how to attend a poetry reading, but why should you? What about them makes it worth your time and effort? Why leave your comfort zone for it? Here are some reasons I find apply to me.

  1. It gives me perspective. As I hear different styles of poetry read in different ways by  different poets, I maintain a realistic opinion of my own work. I’m reminded of how subjective it is; I am left feeling neither inflated nor deflated about it.
  2. It gives me ideas. When at a poetry reading, I am listening without distractions and my mind wanders in a specific way that promotes new connections. It’s common for me to get a flash of inspiration for a new poem I’d like to write. I keep paper and pen handy during a reading and jot things down between poems. By the end, I have a bizarre mishmash of seemingly random words and phrases that carry the seeds of multiple new works. I may or may not follow up on each of them, but the seeds exist.
  3. It gives me a sense of community. I find groups of people very challenging because of my odd fluctuations of energy–I’m always waiting for people to write me off as they find out more about me or hang out with me long enough to get a feeling for the inconsistencies in the way I present myself. My bipolar disorder and the depressive phases come with it can make me feel “other” more often than not–yet, with all that, going to readings helps me affirm my identity as part of a creative community. It lets me see poets of all ages and backgrounds and realize that no idiosyncrasies have the power to un-poet us.
  4. It changes the way I write and revise poems. When I expect to be reading a new poem out loud, I end up paying more attention to its sound and rhythm. It’s important not to get carried away by this; the way the poem looks on the page is still just as important. However, thinking about sound adds a layer to the process of refining a draft.
  5. It re-connects me with the part of myself responsible for poetry. Daily stresses make it easy to lose touch with this, but after a good reading I feel stronger and more centered. Toxic people, the news, pervasive fears–all of these have lost some of their power when faced with the power of creative thought and the love that drives it.

How to Go to a Poetry Reading

If you are anything like I was, you might be very intimidated by the idea of one of these events. Maybe you don’t know what to expect, or maybe you expect the atmosphere to be uncomfortable. Maybe you think it will be a roomful of snooty intellectuals who will dismiss you as not hip enough, not educated enough, not artsy enough…not something enough.

Maybe the idea of actually reading your poetry to an audience of strangers feels so exposing that you cringe at the thought. Why not just pass around the contents of your underwear drawer, or strip naked and do a Charleston at the microphone?

As someone who started going less than two years ago, I’d encourage you to go to one. It’ll open up new aspects of your writing. Here are some tips that might help:

  1. Get there early. Find out where it is and allow plenty of time to get lost, find parking, etc. The reason to get there early is that many of these places are on the small side and you want to get a seat close enough to hear clearly.
  2. Introduce yourself to people and admit you are new to this event.
  3. If anyone asks whether you’re a poet, you say YES.
  4. Bring your poetry, even if you don’t think you want to read this time. Bring at least several different pieces, because what you want to read might change depending on what you have heard. There is often a break during which you can sign up if you didn’t before.
  5. Allow yourself to notice that you don’t adore every poem that is read at the open mic, or even every poem read by a featured poet. Notice how subjective it all is.
  6. If you choose to read, respect the time limits.
  7. Don’t forget to silence your phone.

I predict you’ll find yourself hearing some poems you don’t think are all that great; poems that make you think “Hey, I brought poems I think are better that that. Or certainly no worse.” Whether on that day or a subsequent occasion, you’ll step up to that mic and read something. After it’s over, you’ll see that no one snorted in derision. No tomatoes were thrown. You did it, and the world did not come to an end.

Sweet, Sweet Deadlines

They can be stressful sometimes, but some of my poems owe their very existence to the presence of a specific commitment about when and how a certain poem will be communicated to another person.

A blessed deadline helped me break out of my winter slump recently. It was an especially useful deadline because it is an event being held at an art gallery and I had agreed to write two poems about two paintings. It wasn’t like submitting to a magazine…miss your deadline and they just don’t consider you. Missing this deadline would have meant flaking out on something that was specifically expected from me and creating a blank slot in the program.

So I got the two poems done. I got them done in time to send them off. I had to finish a version of them even if they felt stupid or awkward or forced.  In doing so, I was reminded that finishing a poem is satisfying even if doesn’t seem like my best poem ever. I was also reminded that sometimes a poem can grow on me.

It will be interesting to see what the artists think of my contribution, but I have gained something from the process no matter what happens.

Porn for Poets

If the main purpose of porn is to inspire and facilitate fantasy, the poetry equivalent for me would have to be ads for workshops and retreats. Magazines such as Poets & Writers contain multiple listings that render me dreamy-eyed and wistful, imagining myself scribbling away under a linden tree on a remote estate or perched, bright-eyed, on a chair as a teaching poet reads my work.

Some workshops are priced lower than others, but aside from the rare scholarship offers   they are all out of my reach.  Alas, just as in porn, sometimes you get what you pay for. On the other hand, there do exist some good, free online resources and opportunities for writers–certainly a cut above the internet’s jungle of free porn options.

It’s important for me to be aware of these and understand that when I feel isolated as a poet, it isn’t because I lack money. Sure, workshops are fantastic, exciting, sexy. I’m getting excited right now just thinking about a couple of notices I read this month. However, a poet can form ties and get criticism in other ways. My most important barriers are emotional and psychological, not financial. My level of connection and my development as a poet are my responsibility. “But I had no disposable income,” is not a suitable epitaph to rest above a grave filled with unwritten truths.

What Do I Want?

Do I know? Do I really know?

I’ve been watching a show called Lucifer, in which the Devil owns a nightclub in LA and has a psychic power to draw out a person’s deepest desires. He only has to look into their eyes and ask. They look mesmerized and blurt out their ambition, or secret love, or person they want to kill.

It makes me think about what I would say, if put on the spot and somehow uncensored. What resemblance, if any, would it have to anything I might predict myself saying? It seems like splitting hairs, I know. If I think I want something, supposedly I do. Whether it is a good idea, or whether I’d be happy if I had it, is beside the point. The wanting is in the thought.

Or is it?

What exists on the surface of my thoughts can be very different from my truth. A lifetime of conditioning, fear-based filters, and cognitive fallacies interfere with a clear vision. We think we want to be happy, but we may have little to no idea what happiness would really look like for us.

What is my real ambition? My real desire? What would I cough up under Lucifer’s gaze?

Sure, I want the basic things most people want. Ego gratification, love, security, good things for others I care about. But there is something else.

It’s hard for me to describe, but I’ve experienced it and I want more. I want to carry it around like a rare jewel and give bits of it to others as talismans. Hell, I want to carry it in myself like a virus and transmit it to others just by being with them. I want people to come away from an encounter with a vague sensation that something is different.

Is it hope? Is it joy, wholeness, love? No words are adequate for the thing I have found somewhere on my journey. The thing that drives me to read poetry, or write it, to catch glimpses of what I desire. It’s illogical and capricious. It’s immortal, indestructible, nonlinear. In the coming era of my life, I am not sure what role I am meant to play. I just know I want to serve the thing.

Maybe Lucifer could draw a better description out of me.

The Conversation

I’ve been having the same conversation for a week.

The topic doesn’t matter. The other person involved doesn’t matter. None of it matters as I write this, because the distinguishing features of this kind of conversation have nothing to do with the actual words.

It’s the one you replay in your head, over and over again, long after the actual dialogue is over.

It’s the one whose sentences you rephrase, over and over again, trying to imagine what you could have said that might have let you be heard.

It’s the one you try to put out of your mind because thinking about it makes your stomach clench and your teeth grind and your chest hurt.

It’s the one that only seeps (mostly) out of your skin with time, fading into mist around you until the next time it coalesces and burns once again.

It’s the one that will never, never, never, never, never,

NEVER

be resolved by any effort you can make.

It’s the black hole. It’s the dry well. It’s absolute zero.

Intellectually, I know this. Even my training as a counselor can’t help me communicate over a large enough gulf between realities. My trouble is that when I get emotional, I forget the truth and get drawn in to the idea that it could be different.

I obsess. I rephrase. I fear. I fall into the psyche of that scared child who thinks it’s possible to change what’s going on around her if she is good enough. My reaction is fueled by my general bipolar symptoms, my usual level of insomnia gets augmented, and I exist in a state of limbic overdrive until I can survive long enough for time to settle things down.

Then, when I can, I do something like writing this. I remind myself that I am not alone. My reality is not dissolving; I still have my voice and my beliefs. The conversation will not claim my life today.

I’m Broke, but Here’s a Poem

I want to contribute, and sometimes what I have to offer seems meager. I recently started taking a tai chi class with a group of people who regularly support some charitable causes, and there are usually various solicitations going on. They’re good causes, but I cringe internally at every speech because I am barely scraping together the basic fee for the class I am taking there.

After a recent workshop, I was inspired to write a poem dealing with the subject. It occurred to me that I could send the poem to the visiting teacher who gave the workshop; that he might enjoy it. It might please him to know that his teaching provoked such thought, or he might like it in and of itself.

Sometimes it seems like a lovely idea. Sometimes it seems lame.

I think I am going to do it, though, because sending it clearly fits in with one of my basic values: the idea that I should present myself to the world as I am, offering what I have to offer, and let others decide whether they want it.

Different

Thanksgiving Day is over for another year. There’s no big drama in my family during it, but I still tend to find it overwhelming in terms of socializing and food. When I listen to others describe the stress they sometimes feel, the theme of differences stands out.

Sometimes, when interacting in this kind of environment, we become hyperaware of our differences because we feel a pressure to do one of two things with our differences: explain them or minimize them.

Take food, for example. Every year I hear fellow compulsive eaters, or diabetics, or anyone who needs to follow a certain way of eating for their health and well-being, talk about dreading temptation and/or pressure to eat outside their normal plan. They also dread trying to explain or answer questions about why they choose to follow the plan they do, or justify following that plan instead of what someone else recommends.

I’m so used to not eating what others do that I don’t feel too much specific dread about this, but it does highlight my feelings of being set apart from those who can eat “normally.”

Then there are those of us in recovery who cringe at the thought of being around family members who still drink or use other substances. We make judgment calls about what to attend, make survival plans, and generally experience the holiday as a guarded foray through dangerous territory.

Congratulations to all my kindred spirits who have just come through this. May we be kind to ourselves as we use whatever tools we favor to shore up any cracks in our defenses and restore our connection to the way our differences define and evolve us.

Poetry Dress-Up

I’ve been trying outfit after outfit on my newest poem in progress, and nothing works.

Advice essays by poets for poets often advocate experimenting with different poetic forms. Though free verse is incredibly popular, and is often a go-to, using a form can take  a draft in new directions. I haven’t done it very much–tried to do a pantoum with one draft, but usually blank verse is as close as I come to a form.

However, my current project has me so stuck I am desperate. So I tried doing it as a ghazal. (Basically, that’s a series of couplets that all end with the same word.) Then I tried doing a set of tanka (a five-line Japanese form with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern.) No dice.

Experience with forms is something I’ll get more of if or when I manage to take some actual poetry classes. For now, I suppose I’ll try a couple more forms–then, perhaps, give up and put the draft aside for now. There are other fish in the somewhat murky sea of my imagination.

Wait a Minute…We’re Fish!

First, the fish needs to say
“Something ain’t right about this camel ride…”

(Hafiz, translated by D. Ladinsky)

Self-acceptance. We talk about it, we advocate for it, we want it for ourselves–but we secretly fear that having it, or acting as if we do, would mean we are not trying hard enough. We see the logic of an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, but that logic breaks down when we consider giving ourselves permission to choose ways of living that work well for us, instead of breaking ourselves on the wheel until the choice is made for us.

When my daughter was a toddler, our favorite singer was Laurie Berkner.  Laurie had this self-deprecating grin and contagious laugh that I loved, and she seemed to enjoy her own songs as much as we did. Her song “The Goldfish” talks about some fish that are doing different things in each verse: for example, they go through detailed steps of taking a shower. But then, at some point they stop and say, “Wait a minute…we’re FISH! We don’t take showers! Let’s go swimming!”and off they go into the chorus. The next verse they get into another un-fish-like activity and have the same epiphany.

It was one of our favorite songs to sing with, because we loved shouting that phrase. There was something liberating about it. “WAIT A MINUTE…WE’RE FISH!!” we’d shout with the CD, breaking into giggles afterward. It felt exuberant, unapologetic, life-affirming.

I wish I’d embraced this idea more outside of my kitchen or car. I used to feel such shame when I struggled at a job. I’d sneak off for long restroom breaks that were really just an excuse to be somewhere out of everyone’s sight, get myself together, and go try to act normal until I had to take another one. I think it would have helped me to say to myself “Wait a minute…I’m a fish!” or some metaphysical equivalent. Even if, as many do, I needed to keep the job as long as I could for practical reasons, I might have felt less ashamed and uncomfortable there.

I could have accepted the fact that I was uncomfortable there because it wasn’t my right environment. Have it not be a value judgment but simply a fact: yes, things are going to be hard for me, I am going to feel different, and that’s what it is. I’m a fish in the desert, and it’s not going to come naturally…so I’ll do the best I can, and stop comparing myself to lizards, and try to arrange to go swimming soon.

Ah, but now I hear that voice: that critical voice ripping shreds in my little self-comforting speech. You think everyone else at your job felt comfortable? it says. They all probably hated it as much as you did. They were just as scared, just as ashamed, they probably threw up and had panic attacks in the bathroom too, but they are still there! They didn’t end up in the fucking psych ward. You know why? Because they’re better than you! They tried harder! They’re not lazy and they don’t make excuses! 

There it is. If I cut myself any slack based on my mental illness, that voice is right there saying it’s a cop-out. Imagine how hard it is for someone without a diagnosis to make a life choice that goes contrary to what their critical voice says they should be doing with their life! What courage it takes to choose to obey the call of our hearts or personalities for no other reason than wanting to do so: to be ourselves just because we want to, instead of first having to prove, time after bloody time, that being anyone else doesn’t work.

Hafiz joins Laurie Berkner in advocating an acknowledgment of the fish’s dilemma. The fish in his poem has self-acceptance: it doesn’t gaze at the dry sand and say “something’s not right about me.”  If we accept ourselves this way, then we are faced with the experience of realizing what’s not right around us. We get to look at how far we are from our ocean–and how much we long for it.

Dishes Lie

(Reposted from my old site Not This Song, 2015)

Don’t trust the dishes.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m proud of being able to wash dishes. For years, it was a task shuffled off to my spouse; even more so than other mundane tasks because the specific posture and movements dishes require triggered my lower back pain intensely. Today, he can come home and have anywhere from a 75% to 95% chance of finding the sink and counter clear. Maybe not clean, but at least clear of objects.

The presence of clean dishes can, like laundry or a walked dog, be diagnostic. It can mean that I’m doing well enough physically and mentally to take positive actions. It makes sense that someone who loves me is pleased to see it.

But sometimes dishes tell gleaming, ceramic lies.

Sometimes clean dishes don’t mean anything at all, and the effort that produced them has nothing to do with how I am doing. Sometimes they’re the one task I do that day, not as a small accomplishment but as a ritual of guilt. Sometimes doing the dishes was just a postcard to a distant land where what I do means anything.

So, if your loved one is living with significant depression, don’t believe their foamy sales pitch. Don’t let the dishes convince you that things aren’t that bad. Understand that those duplicitous cups and plates don’t mean that your loved one washed their hair lately, or took their medicine, or had a day free of harming themselves.

And it’s not just dishes that can be lying bastards. Anything can. I used to meet weekly with a woman living in the most crushing, despairing gray mental landscape imaginable. The only time she left her cluttered and neglected home was for appointments related to her physical and mental health issues, but when she arrived to see me she was nicely dressed, clean and made up. Once a week, she’d dragged herself through a misleading shower, put on false-tongued cosmetics and walked into the world for a short outing before reverting to what was real for her.

People can love us, but they can’t save us. So I’m not saying that it’s anyone’s job to read our minds–I just want us, those who suffer both directly and indirectly from these scourges of the mind–to know that there’s often more going on than meets the eye.

You don’t have to have a diagnosis for this to be true, of course. Your boss who seems so full of himself cried like a baby in his therapist’s office earlier today. The guy who sold you a car spent last night compulsively masturbating to Internet porn, missing his wife who left him over his addiction. The prom queen’s bulimic, the football captain was molested; pretty much everyone has a disconnect between how they seem and how they are really doing.

I try to be pretty honest about how I’m doing–at least to the degree that I am able to be honest with myself. Even so, it’s just not possible to brief my loved ones in depth constantly; they’d be unable to function in their own lives if I did. When a family member asks how I am, the answer they get is never the whole story, and when I say goodnight in the evening there are always unread chapters.

Yes, I and others do sometimes make cries for help. But we do the opposite too. We try to look better, just a little, because we hate being a burden. Because we’re sick of trying to describe how we feel, and we imagine that the people we love are just as sick of hearing about it. We try to tough it out, and we try to do something, anything, to inject a little normalcy into the lives of those around us.

We do the dishes. And that’s a good thing, to do something. It’s better than staring at the wall.

But dishes lie.

One-Note Solo

I wrote this on my old site Not This Song years ago–and today, I needed to read it again. I need to remind myself that it’s okay to do things badly; to be a clumsy novice. It’s even okay to do things at which I might never particularly excel. I don’t need a reason or a justification for enjoying something. Neither do you.

When I was in second grade, the school had a choir, but the teacher chose which students were allowed to sing in it. So if you didn’t have a natural ability to carry a tune at age seven, having never had any practice or instruction, you were pretty much told that singing was not for you.

When I was nine, I had one season on a girls’ softball team. Now, it’s quite true that I sucked at softball. I was afraid of the ball; I was uncoordinated, and–something we didn’t know then–I couldn’t see worth a damn. This interfered with batting and catching. So softball wasn’t for me at that time…fine. But was it really necessary for the adults to shake their heads and conclude that I was never going to be athletic? It quite literally took decades for me to realize that, with my adult body, I’m not completely lacking in physical gifts.

When I was twelve, I got an F in art. Seriously? Who gives a kid an F in art? I don’t have a problem admitting that my clay dragon sculpture looked more like a dragon turd. I have a problem with being labeled “bad at art” and living in a culture where that meant I wasn’t supposed to do art any more.

I know, my story’s not unique. What matters is what I do about it now. Starting to write is a big part of this: I’m defying the messages that tell me writing is restricted to an elite class, or that it’s only worth doing if it will be well received. The bad poetry thing is another example. I also have aspirations toward becoming a bad artist someday.

There’s one area where I really made progress as an adult, and that’s singing. Thanks to the urging of a friend, I joined a choir with him in freshman year of college. It turned into many years of singing with various amateur groups. I finally got the experience of being new at something, doing it just well enough to get by at first, and gaining in ability and confidence as I got more practice. That concept we call…what was it…learning?

The best choir director I ever knew once said to us: “Don’t sing tentatively. I’d rather have you all slam into an entrance in the wrong place than do the entrance half-assed.” He meant it, too.

One day we were doing a full orchestra rehearsal, and the soprano entrance was a fortissimo (very loud) high G. When you’re a soprano, there’s one thing you learn about hitting those high notes: whatever the volume, full commitment is necessary. If you sing it any other way it will come out flat. The only way to sing it right is to be willing to risk singing it wrong.

It was probably one of the nicest G’s I’ve ever sung. It rang clear and bright, with a crisp start and plenty of feeling behind it.
Too bad it was one measure early.
I blushed bright red as the conductor prepared to start us all again, but I was able to join in the good-natured laughter and smile sheepishly when the director complimented me on my one-note solo.

Thanks, Maestro, for meaning what you said. That errant note made thousands of great notes possible.

Item One: Not on Fire

This is taken from a 2013 post on my old site Not This Song–and yes, thinking about those affected by the Northern California wildfires is what reminded me of it.

We hear plenty about the importance of practicing gratitude. There’s a big emphasis on it in most spiritual traditions, and addiction recovery philosophy reflects this. It’s not uncommon for a mentor or friend to suggest making a “gratitude list” at regular intervals or whenever troubled. And don’t try to tell them there isn’t anything to put on it, because that won’t fly. If you lost your right arm today, they’ll tell you to be grateful you still have your left one.

Some people start with the basics if they’re having trouble coming up with things: their senses, the food they ate today, being in recovery. Others use methods such as the alphabet list. That one can be fun, especially when you have to give details: A, I’m grateful for apples because they crunch so nicely. B, I’m grateful for bunnies because they are so soft. It can get ridiculous, but hey, at least you’re thinking of something else for a few minutes! My favorite phrase I’ve heard when I find it hard to begin, though, is “Start with the fact that you’re not on fire and work down from there.”

I have to admit that I still feel a little defensive squirming sometimes when a person is recommending any type of gratitude practice to me. A part of me takes it to mean that they think I’m being ungrateful and spoiled; that they are judging me. It’s something I am working on, because it’s really not fair to others when I take what is usually a kind gesture and mentally translate it to them saying “Suck it up, whiner!”

Defensiveness aside, gratitude has come to mean a great deal to me. Where I used to think of it as a sort of Pollyanna self-improvement thing, I now see it as a vital part of my recovery as well as a vital part of living with my mental illness. I don’t practice gratitude to become a better person, or to live more fully. Those are bonuses. I practice gratitude these days because I have no fucking choice if I want to live. 

For me, gratitude is the opposite of self-pity; it’s my best weapon against self-pity and what goes with it. Self-pity and all of the excuses it created nearly killed me, and it can still kill me as surely as a bullet if I let it run unchecked. I’ve written before about the magic of learning to feel true and tender compassion for myself in a way that still honors the need to avoid dangerous self-pity. This process clears enough room in my spirit for gratitude and its close cousin, acceptance.

Gratitude flows more organically for me lately, although I’m sure I could benefit from making lists frequently. It tends to be accessed as a natural result of playing Whack-a-mole with my self-pity whenever it tries to crop up. I have to find other things to dwell on, different things to talk about with others, and in doing so I become someone who notices and acknowledges good things more often.

Philosophers call this idea the via negativa: defining something by saying what it is not. We don’t always know where we want to go in life, or what the best path to take is. Sometimes the best we can do is have a clear vision of what we don’t want. This vision can be one of the gifts of addiction or our other demons. The vision can take us to new attitudes, goals and ways of living that we could not have imagined for ourselves, because we never had the tools or experiences to do so.

This is why I’m willing to do certain things, even if they feel awkward or silly.  Why I’ll continue to work the different aspects of my program and try to get better at practicing all of the spiritual principles involved. I don’t know exactly where they will take me; I just know what they’ll help me avoid. Today, that truly is enough.

You Promised

I just overheard a few lines of a loud couple’s spat. One of them shouted “You promised you wouldn’t break my heart!”

The seventeen-year-old with me commented “That’s a pretty stupid thing to promise.”

I agreed with her, and it made me think about my attitude toward relationships. Have I become cynical about love?

Poetry is full of feelings about love. New love, old love, lost love, unrequited love, sexual love, fraternal love…love in all its forms.

Poetry is full of the ways love makes us feel. Therapy sessions are full of talk about the love we want or our feelings of betrayal about the love we don’t have.

I always wanted the love of others to make me feel better about myself. I used it, along with substances or other forms of escapism, to soothe my fears and frustrations. It didn’t help that I had no idea what love actually looked like. I wanted something, and when I didn’t get it I felt neglected and resentful.

It’s taken me decades to learn that nobody owes me love. That I can’t win love, earn love, manipulate love or simulate love. That love is beyond my understanding or my power to control. Do I feel sad or lonely when I want someone to love me and they don’t? Yes. But I no longer feel like a victim or believe there’s some way I could change it.

I wouldn’t ask anyone to promise they won’t break my heart, and I can’t promise I won’t break theirs.

The Other Shoe

I’ve been doing something dangerous recently: taking better care of myself.

After a very long downward spiral of diabetes/low thyroid/weight gain/depression feedback loop fun, things have begun to move in the other direction since spring. It began with a desperate, no-holds-barred attempt to bring my blood sugars under control with a change in eating–a change that, surprisingly, worked well. It accelerated when this change, somehow immune to my eating/weight baggage because it was serving the blood glucose meter and not the scale, began to have the side effect of taking off a little weight. It accelerated more when something about what I was doing affected my thyroid and my levels approached normal for the first time in years. My most recent labs are a thing of beauty compared to the values of last year.

So why is this a dangerous thing?

It feels dangerous because a part of my psyche is convinced good things won’t stay. A lot’s been written about the psychology of growing up in a household of substance abuse and/or violence, but you have to be one of us to know the sickening plunge of fear that comes when the unpredictable trouble erupts. Everything seems all right, then the floor drops out from under you and you’re in fight/flight/freeze mode. And because you’re a kid, sometimes the third one is the only available option.

Anyway, that part tends to make itself heard when things are going well. I have an inner conviction that something awful is about to happen, and when something bad does happen it’s taken as a confirmation that I was right.

The more I feel a sense of hope about the improvements in my health, the more convinced I am that some terrible punishment awaits. The resistance I battle every time I write something or do anything else positive is almost palpable. It fuels itself with everything from little symptoms to relatives’ ailments to the news:  “You, or someone you love, or the planet, is going to pay a price for your selfish behavior. It’s only a matter of time.”

The Fiftieth Person

Once, while preparing to speak at a recovery event, I wrote something like, “Open my heart, and then open my mouth. Let me look like a fool to forty-nine people if it will help the fiftieth person.”

Do I have the courage to apply that idea to poetry as well?

In a couple of days I’m going to read a few pieces of poetry at a recovery event. The audience will be very different from the ones I have faced before–for the first time,  I’ll be reading poetry to an audience of people who may have come for other things and have no interest in the poetry part of the show.  I’m experiencing a much higher level of public speaking anxiety than what is normal for me. I’m trying to revamp some poems into a format that I think is “cooler” or more likely to go over well–and the revamping is at a complete stall.

Not too surprising, I suppose. While my self-care has had some improvements lately, I have been very blocked when it comes to writing. The reasons are both repetitive and unoriginal, but there it is.

At any rate, past experiences give me faith that when the time comes, I will step onto the stage and manage to read. Past experiences assure me that this will happen, and the world will not come to an end. I just have to show up.

Burning

I am rediscovering my rage toward addiction.

I anthropomorphize the general phenomenon of addiction; many of us do. Especially as we struggle with abstaining, it can be helpful. You want to resent something? Resent that. You need somewhere to direct your rage, your hatred, your frustration? Hate the thing that wants you dead; that wants us dead. Hate the thing that wants to eat your soul and replace it with its eternal craving.

It’s not that we deny our responsibility for our situation or our duty to keep fighting. But in the midst of the humility we need to seek and find, sometimes we need to rebel. So yes, I welcome the rage and the rebellion sometimes.

I recently spent time in the hospital with an addict who has been on dialysis for years and has now just had open heart surgery. Still on methadone, she has the accompanying high tolerance for pain meds. I listened to her repeated begging for more medication as the pain resisted treatment. I watched her be in the power of nurses–some kind, some not–who questioned the validity of every request.

I watched her frail body curling in on itself, like a leaf curling and withering in a flame. I could almost see addiction as the fire in which she burned.

And I hated that fire.

Too Little, Too Late

The phrase haunts me. Whenever I find a lump where a lump shouldn’t be, or even have a twinge of pain in an unfamiliar place, the fear comes up. I’m turning into a hypochondriac, and I don’t like it.

It’s not just that I am afraid of dying, although I am. It’s that part of me is still waiting for a judgment from the universe–a judgment saying I’ve had enough second chances. A judgment saying my current efforts are too little, too late.

I recently spent time with a fellow addict who is on dialysis. For three years, she tried to quit smoking in order to get on the list for a kidney transplant and could not do it. She finally succeeded—two months before a heart complication showed up and derailed the whole process. Too little, too late.

My blood sugars are lower than they’ve been in a long time–but with every exam I fear the onset of some complication born during the less controlled times. My weight is improving slowly from the place it reached last year–but with every sore knee or backache I fear that I’ll never dance again.

It all feeds into the roar from the ever-present peanut gallery that observes my efforts at writing: You’re too old! It’s too late! There’s not enough time left to accomplish anything that is worth doing!

Isolation

We use the word as a verb often these days. I’m isolating a lot. She started isolating. He tends to isolate when he gets depressed.

Isolating is different from just being an introvert or enjoying solitude. Isolating is ducking phone calls, declining invitations when we do get them, shunning gatherings or meetings we used to attend.

We do it because of depression, or shame, or pain and fatigue. We do it because we are too tired to face the dreaded question “How are you?”

Then we keep doing it because we feel guilty about having done it for a while. Guilty about the phone calls we ducked and the meetings we skipped. Overwhelmed at the thought of trying to explain why we flaked out on interactions when we don’t really understand how it works ourselves–or, if we do understand it well, we may have also learned that understanding it doesn’t make it any easier to explain.

It’s dangerous for us. It can make depression worse. If we are in recovery from an addiction, it increases our chance of relapse. It’s bad for our physical health and narrows our world in a way that can let our negative thoughts and traits begin to dominate.

So how do we stop doing it? How do stop doing it?

One thing that’s really hard for me to accept, even after years of work, is that my mental health issues may always manifest in cycles of mood and ability to interact. For me, the struggle is about harm reduction and trying to reduce the shame and fear that extend a cycle of isolation past its natural life span.

And when I find a foolproof way of doing that, I’ll be sure to let you know.

The Parable of the Cursed Axe

(Originally posted on my old site Not This Song, 2015)

So there I was, one warm summer day, sitting at a table in the lounge of the neighborhood counseling center. Beside me lay a stack of paperwork I should have been working on between sessions, and in front of me was my tiny, ancient laptop computer. “How’s it going?” one of my fellow counselors asked, walking in with their own stack of paraphernalia. “Terrible,” I replied. “I’m surrounded by a large band of orcs and I’m wielding a minus-20 cursed axe.”

I got an odd look, can’t imagine why.

The really old version of Nethack I was playing was, at the time, one of my favorite relaxations. One of the simplest of dungeon crawlers, with all rooms, objects and monsters made only of characters available on a common keyboard, it was a game requiring lots of imagination. I was an @ sign, monsters were mostly letters, objects were punctuation, etcetera.

I started playing it in college, and I guess I have a pretty good imagination because I was really into it. The rules, and the random nature of the dungeons, sometimes allowed odd things to happen. For example, there were “stores” where you could buy weapons and potions, but you’d better not steal or the shopkeeper, written to be amazingly strong, would kill you. But, if you had a scroll of teleportation, you could load up with goodies and escape.

Anyway, my situation with the orcs that day was the weirdest one I ever got into. Here’s how it happened (because I am sure you’re dying to know, given that you can sense a metaphor coming afterward.) My character had survived and prospered long enough to have excellent armor, strength and regenerative abilities, but I was only wielding a lowly dagger. So I was pleased when I found an axe, and picked it up.

Now, it’s wise to be cautious of weapons one finds in this game, because some of them are cursed. But I didn’t have a scroll of identify to show me the exact characteristics of this axe, and I was impatient, so I typed in the command to wield the weapon. Descending the stairs to the left dungeon level, I found myself surrounded by the letter O. Orcs. They were all around me, and it was impossible to move. There was nothing to do but fight them.

Now, orcs are not all that strong in this game, which is why they exist in such large groups. So I was surprised when my attacks on the first orc seemed ineffective. Maybe I would be better off with my dagger after all. Trying to switch, I saw the dreaded message “You can’t. It appears to be cursed.” A cursed weapon can’t be dropped, and since only one weapon can be wielded at a time, my dagger or anything else was now unavailable to me.

Checking my inventory, I saw that my cursed axe was rated minus-2, which explained its ineptitude. With no scroll of remove curse handy, I had no choice but to keep hacking away as best I could. Then the letter R appeared. Are you kidding me? A rust monster, now? With every hit, a rust monster makes your weapons or armor less effective. My minus-two axe became minus-three. Minus-five, seven…minus-twenty by the time it stopped. I was now fighting the undiminished pack of orcs with what amounted to a shapeless hunk of rusty iron too heavy to lift. But I could not put it down.

Yes, wielding a cursed weapon sucks. But we’ve all done it, haven’t we?

Haven’t we all had a response, or a coping mechanism, that is ineffective at best and destructive at worst, but we just can’t put it down? One that seems to have become intertwined with our psyche so much that we can’t detach it?

Yes, addictive behaviors are one clear example, and my mind certainly goes there as expected. Having begun to use them, some of us can’t put them down even when they put us in an obvious no-win situation. We swing them helplessly at the problems around us, no longer able to pick up or use a healthier method even if we know of one, unable to accept the fact that our old weapon isn’t working any more, hasn’t been working for a while, and isn’t going to start working again.

But addiction isn’t the only fertile ground for this metaphor–none of us are without our cursed weapons, and these weapons sometimes became part of our arsenal when we were very young. If we learned to avoid feelings or situations, avoidance can become our default response and be very difficult to change. If we learned angry confrontation as the go-to reaction to protect ourselves, it becomes our cursed weapon too. If we learned to please people and try to placate them, we find out how such a pattern can deplete our self-esteem and personal development.

As often happens, I’m bashing ineptly at the orc pack of despair and worry that seems to be pressing in on me, unwilling and unready to admit that I am not doing damage to anything but myself. Feeling powerless to stop the pattern, and not being hopeful that a more powerful weapon is available to me right now.

I know my general fears and anxieties are lying to me! I know there’s power I can use. I know! I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it, I wouldn’t be here without the Thing, whatever it is, and it can help me if I let it.

Whatever you are, help me drop the cursed ax. I’m asking now. Help me lose my fear of the orcs long enough to look at the dungeon floor around me and see that there are scrolls there, including a magic scroll of remove curse. Of grace.

Starburst

I now have THREE poems stuck in pre-draft limbo. One has been there for two days, one for two weeks, and one for at least a month. What is this thing in me that will not give me permission to sit down and hammer out a first draft?

Well, besides mental health issues and a lifetime of experience at self-sabotage.

In desperation, I did a starburst on one of them. It looked like this:

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The starburst is a brainstorming technique. You put a single image or word in the middle and start drawing associations; some will be important and some not.

My image for this poem has been clear from the beginning: a glass mug of hot water with a chamomile tea bag in it. Pale brown-gold threads are drifting out into the water as the tea starts to be absorbed.

The image, like many of those a poet chooses, is a tool for crystallizing a moment and the thoughts and feelings that went with it. The starburst helps me elucidate some of those.

I’d like to say that the starburst promptly galvanized me into action–well, not yet. But I know I’m closer, both because of such things and from having coffee with a fellow poet yesterday.

Fear Not?

I chose today’s piece because fear has been clamping down on my creativity lately. Just like any other emotional state, fear comes in both useful and useless varieties when it comes to writing–with the useless kind, my brain freezes or flees into escapist behaviors. So…

(Originally posted on my old page Not This Song, 2015)

How much does fear rule your life?

Those who do some kind of deep self-examination are often surprised to see how deeply, widely, and diversely fear is imbedded in their psyche. I don’t think I was surprised to find its presence in some deep places, but it was enlightening to see how much of my daily behavior is fueled by it on some level.

It’s hard to admit how afraid I am. It’s easy to buy into the idea of courage and strength being incompatible with the presence of great fear. It’s easy to forget how different we are from one another sometimes; that something only mildly frightening to one person may be a source of utter terror to someone else.

There’s an old story about two soldiers in a trench during World War I, waiting through the tense hours before a charge. One sits calmly, while the other paces incessantly, chain-smoking and talking nonstop. The calm one makes a disparaging remark about his nervous comrade, and the other replies: “My friend, if you were as afraid as I am, you would have run away a long time ago.”

I am afraid the way that soldier is. Too afraid to pretend not to be, too afraid to carry things off with style. I need to comfort myself with stories like this, becasue when I scratch the surface of my skin hard enough to penetrate the thin layers of maturity and faith I find a sea of fear. I think I need a hundred words for the many different varieties of fear, with their subtle shadings of meaning and manifestation.

If you’ve ever been afraid the way I am, you know that it doesn’t respond to logic. Oh, some fears do, or they can be soothed with emotional support, or by questioning them with cognitive-behavioral techniques. But there are kinds of fear so primitive, so nonverbal, so far beyond any mental construct that our attempts to soothe them feel like trying to send a T-rex to therapy.

One kind is what psychologists call “annihilation anxiety.” It’s what it sounds like: fear of utter destruction, unmaking, nothingness. Its roots lie very early in life–in the stage of complete dependence of an adult figure and the terror that losing said figure’s love would mean destruction–and it’s nonverbal and primal enough that sometimes I don’t even realize it’s come up until I’ve been reacting to it for days.

Primal fear comes up in our old baggage and in new baggage that got influenced by the old. It’s what is operating when we do things in our relationships that just don’t make sense; when our therapist and friends and whoever have a clear, obvious idea what should be done, who should be confronted, who should be left, but the thought of actually doing it is–well–unthinkable.

What to do about it? Oh, you already know what I’m going to say. There is no swift and logical cure for this kind of fear. There’s no cure at all–only the chance to go into remission. To fight the fear to a standstill and wait for it to get tired and take a break. But how to fight something you can’t see, or speak to, or argue with? Can a sword cut darkness?

No, it can’t. Nor can clever words convince it to retreat. There are only two things I can do: first, stop acting out in a futile attempt to drown the fear under more familiar pain. Then huddle close to the fire. Feed the fire, watch the fire, and don’t let it go out, and try not to think too hard about what will happen if it does. Feed the fire of my Self; yes, and the Self, whatever mystic force that is. Everything I am that is not nothingness. Everything I am, and was, and will be, that is the opposite of nothingness.