Just As I Am

Today I’m wrestling with a common question: go to a poetry reading or not? One of my favorite monthly ones is happening this afternoon, and I want to go–but I’m not having a good day.

Not having a good day, in this case, refers to my bipolar symptoms. The depression and disorientation are up for me right now, and it is hard to focus. When I am like this, I feel a bit alien and more socially awkward than usual. How much of this is my perception and how much actually affects others is hard to determine.

Would going to the reading do me good? Yes, almost certainly. It’s an opportunity to connect with the poet I am and disconnect from mundane worries.

So what’s trying to keep me away? Ego, of course. Not wanting to show my vulnerability. Wanting people to like me.

Let’s break it down, however. Some of my poems that touch people the most are my most unguarded ones; the ones that expose me. One of my favorite things to say to myself when I am blocked is “When all else fails, tell the truth.”

I’ve written it before, but for me it bears writing again: my best qualities come forth when I offer myself to the world, just as I am, and let others decide what to make of it.

Are We Disposable?

(Originally posted on my old page Not This Song, 2014)

It’s a selfish question that hovers around the edges of my mind when I think about the state of our world. I’m not involved in politics, and I tend to be ignorant of many topics that speak of important developments–I don’t like that about myself, but it is my truth. As my readers know, there are times when my main contribution to society involves working on ways not to be an active drain on it.

Those who share some of my issues are often seen as an impediment to the prosperity of others, and certain voices try to shame us when we use the services our governments may provide to care for those who have trouble caring for themselves. I’d like that to be different, but I don’t imagine it will ever be uncomplicated.

In the end, we are all still animals competing for resources, and only the trappings of civilization introduce the idea of giving any resources to the helpless. Some have said that the measure of a civilization’s advancement is related to how much, and how well, they care for their children, their sick and their elderly.

Whatever one thinks about the world situation, it’s pretty clear that overpopulation will continue to be a problem. Resources will be at more of a premium, and there will begin to be more sorting of which kinds of sick or disabled are worthy of help. Mental health may not be highest on the list. Addiction-related issues are likely to be even lower, since addicts are usually seen as deserving their suffering.

This, from a Darwinistic point of view, may be a regrettable but unavoidable thing. But how much should we resist its progress? How much should we fight to be seen as something besides a liability? Is there a place for us in the future?

Sometimes, when my mind is spinning its catastrophic phantasies, I go postapocalyptic and imagine how long I, and many I care about, would last. I always imagine myself as a liability to whatever group I’m with, unable to function very well without my meds, or unable to see because my glasses got broken. I see myself as useless, without a lot of physical strength or swiftness to build or get things the group needs. I see myself as the first to fall behind and become lunch for zombies–unless a friend gives me a helping hand.

And why should they?

Why should they, unless we have some kind of value that isn’t strictly practical?

Why should they, unless those crowded barracks or underground warrens need us? Unless humanity is incomplete without us? Unless there’s a spark that’s worth maintaining, a spark worth a bit of food or a place near the fire?

Why should any society help its disabled, even when a cold equation might say the help isn’t bringing a sufficient return?

I got on this subject with my therapist during one of my dark and hopeless spirals recently, and we talked about the idea that humanity, by nature, will always need its shamans, its poets and its weird people in general, as well as the wisdom of its elders. “That may be true,” I said, “but you can’t deny that in a crisis state the strong and able will be valued most. The women who can bear healthy children, the physically strong, the mentally stable: these are the ones who can outrun the zombies or will get rescued first. You can’t deny that I’ll be one of the first to go.”

Then he told me that, although it might be true in some situations, it doesn’t mean I deserve it. Then he said something that cheered me up: he told me that if it does happen, maybe I’ll discover that the zombies are in need of poets too. Feeling better, I began to imagine my new dream job as Poet Laureate of a zombie city.

I don’t know if we are disposable. I don’t know, not for sure, whether our existence has intrinsic value. But I do exist, and I am grateful for it, and I have a daughter for whom I want to model values of love and not shame. I want her to see me doing my best, and believing I have something to give the world, so that she might learn to believe the same thing.

So I send love to all my peers, and invite us to go down swinging if the time comes, and hold our heads up until then. As a token of my affection, I enclose the opening poem from my potential future body of work:

Brains

Arrrgh brains brains
Brains gurgle thud howl
Brains brains crunch splat
Brains brains brains.

Estimable

(Originally published on Not This Song, 2013)

The good news is that I’m dressed and I’m wearing shoes. I took my vitamins, ate what I’m supposed to and I’m ready to tackle the rest of the day. The bad news is that it’s 1:47 p.m. where I am.

What is success, and who decides the difference between success and failure? I’ve had to change my ideas about it several times, because the alternative is self-loathing and despair. I’m honestly able to give myself credit for the good things I manage to do, and the harmful things I manage to refrain from doing. Sometimes. I compare myself to other people less often and less harshly than I used to. Sometimes.

I’m honestly pleased with myself for getting through my latest severely anxious phase. I’m pleased because I didn’t lose sight of the big picture and I didn’t do a lot of things to make it worse.

An accomplishment–but not the kind I can put down on a resume. Not the kind that makes good party conversation. Not the kind that comforts me a lot when I hear about friends and former classmates who are doing things…who are having accomplishments that can be listed and quantified.  During college, and later, I got to know some people who forged on and now do some pretty neat things. One works for NASA. A few others are scientists doing research with major institutes. Several are kick-ass teachers helping the next generation have a chance to learn. One’s an amazing minister and social justice advocate.

One of my biggest regrets about the last ten or twelve years is that I drifted further apart from many of these people. Inertia and laziness played a role, but most of it was my own insecurity, because I thought of them often. I never knew what to say when people asked me how I was doing, and I hated the idea of being seen as the “one who had so much potential.” I convinced myself that I had little to offer, and that they were too busy with their important and successful lives.

I was wrong. I lost touch with our shared essential humanity…I objectified them by forgetting that they have their struggles too, and I didn’t have the courage and humility to keep offering myself and let them decide what they wanted. As I grow, I hope to work on this…I don’t expect to be able to repair all of these relationships, but I want to become the kind of person who does things to show I’m thinking of them and I care.

This means I have to continue to work on my own insecurity, and learn to view myself as having something to offer even though it’s something different. It’s back to evolving a standard of success for myself, one that fits with who I am, what I have to work with and what I believe. One that will inspire and drive me, but not be used as a tool for self-shaming.

The psychologist Karen Horney once said “If you want self-esteem, engage in estimable behavior.” I love that quote because it makes it clear that building a good view of self isn’t about rubber-stamping all of my flaws…I don’t want to feel great about myself when I sit on the couch and do nothing. Compassionate, maybe, but not admiring or self-satisfied. The way to feel better about myself is to get up from that couch and do something, anything, that fits with my values.

Karen Horney didn’t define what “estimable behavior” is, that’s for me to do. If I’m in a crippling depression, I have to accept that dragging myself outside or to a meeting qualifies. If I’m having an anxiety attack, I need to give myself some credit for writing about it, and cutting out collage pictures to occupy my hands, and being honest while it was going on. All of the things I am doing that are out of my comfort zone are estimable in their own way, if I can avoid comparing them with someone else’s version.

This is my fifty-third post on Not This Song. That means that in the last three months I’ve written more than fifty essays. Created fifty things that didn’t exist before. Opened up fifty times about some idea that has meaning for me. Would anyone care to guess how many pieces I wrote in the previous five years? That’s right. Zero.

I will be proud of this.
I will learn to admire the accomplishments of others without turning them into a condemnation of my own.
I will allow my essential self to purge the poisons of envy and shame from me.
I will.
Even if it takes more than one lifetime, there’s no better time to begin.

Talking to Seagulls

Originally posted on Not This Song, 2013

Today I had the privilege of going on a trip to the beach with my daughter. Yes, I engaged in a mundane, family-oriented, pleasant activity that many people see as a very normal thing. I do not, because for me it is anything but mundane. I don’t take things like this for granted. For example, being near the ocean today reminded me of a very different day near the ocean, and this is the story I will tell.

It was one of those days. THOSE days. There was a thick gray veil between me and the world, and my thoughts moved sluggishly but malevolently beneath a matching oil slick on the surface of my mind. I was on a medication merry-go-round, with well-meaning professionals trying to find the right chemical to help stabilize my brain chemistry. Every new attempt brought a set of nasty side effects, and I was urged to be patient for at least eight weeks to see if the medicine would have a therapeutic effect. When the side effects altered my mood enough to be dangerous, the doctor would add something else to the mix to try to combat this.

At this point I felt the way my poor dolls must have felt when I cut their hair as a child: it turned out a little uneven, so I would cut more to fix that, then more when it was still uneven. I can still see their traumatized little doll faces under a few uneven hanks or hair clinging to their holey little doll scalps.

When my family suggested a drive to the beach, I didn’t want to go. After all, I had planned to spend some quality time in the fetal position. But I knew from experience that being outdoors was good for my mental state, and I was lured by the tactile pleasures to be found at the beach. I knew I could sit and run my hands through cool, wet sand, again and again, reducing the gray whirl in my head.

So that’s what I did, after my husband and daughter parked me in a congenial spot and wandered closer to the surf. I’m sure it was a relief for them to know I was peacefully occupied, because being on an outing with me in this state is like carrying a balloon: the balloon isn’t really contributing to the conversation or the activities, but you have to hold on to the string all the time or it will drift away.

As I raked through the cool sand, the breeze seemed to wake me up and I began to feel more anxious. A seagull alighted on a nearby mound of sand and I talked earnestly to it, talked about how I was feeling and how frustrating it was to be in my head. The seagull was a good therapist, I suppose, but a little old school for my tastes. I like a little more feedback, or at least some attention to the relationship.

I needed more. So when the family came back I told them I wanted to go for a walk alone. I was too tired and weak to go far, but I found a rock to sit on and watch the waves. It hurt so much to see so much beauty around me and yet not see it, to feel so many sensations and yet not feel them. I decided I should try to pray. I believed in Something, but I always felt stupid trying to talk to it. I don’t remember what I said, but I felt as awkward as usual. I thought maybe my God would send me some kind of sign, that an eagle would swoop across my vision or a rainbow would flash from the spray of a wave at a dramatic moment. I was ready to take something like that as a sign that I should hold on; a sign that there was a plan and things would get better. Nothing happened.

I felt my energy draining away again, and I was about to get up and make my way back toward the car when an impulse made me take one more deep, deep breath of salt air. Looking one more time at the rocks and waves, I said one last sentence to my God–the God who doesn’t fit any one religion, the God I was not at all convinced could help me with anything. I said “Well, I won’t give up if you won’t.”

Feel free to roll your eyes at this point in my story, because I did see something then. Not a bird or a rainbow from above the water, but a wet, brown head popping into view from below it. A sea lion, so close I could count his whiskers. I’d never been so close to one before. He or she swam toward me, rolled in the water a couple of times and was gone below the surface again.

This is the part where I tell you that this was the turning point for me; that I was never that low again, that the little sea lion was a messenger of hope and meaning that has never left me. But none of that would be true, and if you share some common ground with me your life probably doesn’t work that way either. Things did get better for me, but not right away. And later they got worse again. And worse still. And then better. You get the idea.

It was a moment, that’s what it was. A lovely, funny moment like a cherry in a bowl of gruel. It’s stuck with me because it was the first time I prayed in a way that portrayed me and my God as a team. It’s stuck with me because I love the ocean and I feel so much gratitude for a day like today when I can really see it. I drove us to the beach today, and I walked several miles along the shore. Nobody had to hold my string. I can’t expect that it will always be this way, but I can appreciate the moments. We all can.

Joining

I’ve been thinking about my two websites lately. The first one created, Not This Song, was focused on my experiences of living with bipolar disorder and living in recovery from my addiction to painkillers. It ranges far afield in topics and uses metaphors from just about anything. This site was created later, to focus on my poetry and my experiences with writing and creativity.

At the time, the distinction made sense. Lately, however, I have been struggling with writing frequently enough on either blog. I’ll want to write, then get stuck about which site to update with those words–and the thought of updating both seems like too much when I am feeling overwhelmed.

Life and art are blending together, and it is harder and harder for me to separate them. I have decided to join them together, making Not My Last Words my only site. I’ll still write about a wide range of topics, but most of the time they will be linked to some aspect of my creative work (or lack thereof.)

Over the next couple of months, I will cross-post my favorite things from the Not This Song archives so that they will exist in the archives here.

If you are a poet who has found this site, I hope the other topics won’t bore you. I hope to create a site that speaks of one person’s creative efforts and progress in such a way that others can identify.

Cards

The reading was an amazing experience. My concern that the audience would be small proved to be correct, but that’s really the only thing I would change. The longer time allowed me to get into more of a groove, and doing so allowed me to read a couple of poems I wouldn’t feel comfortable reading at a two-minute open mic. They went over very well.

Because I had no books or chapbooks to offer, I thought I should at least have some cards to give out. So I went and had some inexpensive ones made at Staples. Let me tell you, designing it was a bit of a mental hokey-pokey.

I’ve had business cards when working in biotech. I’ve had them when I was working as a counselor. This is the first card I have had that describes me as a poet and writer. What should it say?

In the end I went with my name, the names of my two websites, my contact info and my unofficial motto of  “One Metaphor at a Time.”

Giving them out to people felt very strange, especially the idea that people who know me only by my poetry will know a great deal more about me if they choose to visit the websites.

I tell myself that’s OK. I write my best when I am my most authentic, even if that means I am authentically broken.

An Honest Poet

As I approach my first experience of featuring at a reading, I need to remember the importance of honesty. To be an honest poet is to present myself and my poems in a way that reflects who I really am as a poet, not what I think my audience might admire the most.

I’ve noticed that I am nervous about my reading taking place the Monday after the presidential inauguration. Emotions may be running high, and it is not unlikely that the open mic will reflect this. My insecurity tells me that I should try to generate some work that would address current events.

I worry that people won’t want to hear a bunch of work that has nothing to do with any of the topics so present in our minds and hearts right now. But that’s not for me to decide: I think being asked to feature means being asked to let people see a broader picture of my work. Presenting a hurried and forced set of work, out of fear or out of a desire to be accepted, would be dishonest. Holding back my most authentic works out of fear that they’ll be seen as self-indulgent would also be dishonest.

Twenty-Five Minutes

I’m featuring at my first poetry reading!

To “feature” means that you are the poet who spends a larger chunk of time reading your work, as opposed to the 2-5 minutes during an open mic. I will have 25 glorious and terrifying minutes to read multiple poems and give the audience a greater sense of who I am than a single poem can do.

It’s a small and intimate venue in Berkeley, and there will probably be less than 20 poets there–but it’s still exciting to me, and it’s a great compliment to be asked. Usually the featured poet is more established and published, and I am what is diplomatically referred to as an “emerging” poet.

At first, I told myself that the host who invited me was just being supportive and wanted to give me the opportunity as a growth experience (Me finding it hard to take a compliment; what a shock) but the next week another of the hosts, who doesn’t know me, asked me independently.

I’m really grateful for the kindness and welcome I’ve found so far in the Bay Area poetry community, and I can’t wait until January 23! I’m having such fun imagining which poems I will read and in what order, as well as being inspired to finish some new ones.

Training Montage

What would a poet’s training montage look like?

Recently, even in the midst of being quite dysfunctional, I experienced a surge of enthusiasm about poetry. It got started when I attended a small poetry event and committed to reading at the open mic next month. This renewed fire energized me so much that I created the first new draft I’ve been able to do for months! (No, it isn’t Aquamarine. That one’s still a stubborn bitch.)

The point is, I fucking love poetry. And I love how I feel when I create a new piece. I wonder, what would it look like if that love really showed in my daily life? What if there were no barriers between my desire and my ability to act on it?

What if a part of me were not always trying to get me to destroy myself? Would my fire be strong enough to burn through the ordinary barriers of laziness or inertia?

In my fantasy, my desire to write would invade every aspect of my life. My life would be a training montage.

I’d eat well, take my medicine, never miss a doctor’s appointment…to be healthier and live longer to write more poetry.
I’d clean my apartment…to create a better atmosphere for writing.
I’d exercise…to be strong and fit so that the tasks of daily life wouldn’t exhaust me too much for writing.
I’d sing…to keep my voice limber and resonant for readings.
I’d pray and meditate…to clear the path of daily fears and let inspiration through.

It would all, in some way, be about the creating. Every positive action I took would be a way of showing how much I love the magic of the word.

But in my real world, the positive actions I manage don’t meld into a stirring training montage. The love letter to poetry I want my life to be is divided into scraps and snippets.

Emily Dickinson’s Twitter Feed

I’m starting to think of myself as a poet, and a writer. The past two years have seen a slowly creeping transformation in my self-image: despite a deluge of inputs from the self-critical or self-destructive peanut gallery, despite my doubts about ever finding an audience, my conception of who and what I am has become intertwined with the arrangement of words and ideas to tell a story or evoke an experience.

One thing that troubles me is my lack of aptitude (or energy) for social media or networking. Not only lack of aptitude, but actual insecurity, fear and a feeling of being drained and exhausted after very little participation. It seems, these days, that a writer who wants to be heard must be a social media guru, and I am not one. I’m an introvert with chronic pain, mental health issues, and daily responsibilities that leave me wanting to assume the fetal position rather than do a status update.

Continuing to write requires that I have faith about the worth of what I am doing whether I am ever published or not…and I need to think about poets like Emily Dickinson.

I don’t think Emily would have been very good at the social media thing either. Really, can you imagine it?

@EmilyBroods: Thought about death some more today #HeardaFlybuzz #Stopforme
@EmilyBroods: Looking at the light through my window. Thinking about death. #acertainslant
@EmilyBroods: Having a better day! Maybe it’s not so bad. #Thingwithfeathers

She didn’t write in constant touch with an audience, and when I write poetry I don’t either. I need to be at peace with that. I get huge satisfaction when my prose touches someone, and I’m sure I would feel the same way about poetry when I am ready to get more of it out there–but it’s frosting. My truest self wants to go on doing it even in isolation.

That being said, I want to be open to learning more about reaching out. But I can’t stop writing to do it, and if the act of writing uses up all of my energy for that day–that’s how it is.

The Right Flavor of Pain

Pain fuels creativity; we all know it. Strong emotions make good art.

Poetry spins darkness into a million shades of beauty.

Poetry even spins darkness into light sometimes; light that is made more beautiful and whole by the process.

I have no problem believing this. I affirm that pain has been a catalyst for some of the greatest written songs of consciousness I have ever witnessed.

I do have a problem with hurting in a way that won’t let me use the hurt to grow or create.

It’s not a matter of degree. My most intense despair makes great fuel, when it’s felt cleanly. Its impetus might even push out a poem I’ve held back out of insecurity, because I am less likely to feel I have anything to lose.

It’s the flavor of suffering that makes the difference. Authentic emotions, each with their own spice, are all usable. Even the bleak and thin taste of loneliness has its place. But there’s one flavor that sucks out all others and turns a potentially unique recipe into mush.

It’s not an emotion, but rather a condition. You probably know what I am going to say. It’s depression. Deep, clinically significant depression.

When my depressive symptoms are elevated, poems don’t want to come. The poems come when I’ve clawed my way out far enough to scream; far enough to feel the need to scream.

I know poetry is more than a cat’s cradle of pain. I know the ability to transfigure emotion is only the beginning, but it’s a pretty important one. Of all the reasons I have to despise my mental illness, its periodic theft of my creativity is one of the strongest.

New Poem: “Privilege”

I do not usually post poems on this site, but as a white person living in the times of the Black Lives Matter movement I’m having feelings that just want to get out. I wrote this about what it’s like to be suffering and still be achingly conscious of white privilege.

Privilege

I got troubles, I got poison in my head
wanting to kill me and that’s fucked up it’s true
But if I open these pale ears of mine
I got other voices that talk at me too

and the voices they say, listen white girl
listen to us black and dying out here
dying while we’re trying to live
dying when we’re trying harder than you

Hear us howl, not afraid of a traffic stop girl
no stinkeye when you go in a shop girl
get some attention in the ER girl
not labeled druggie even if you are girl

Listen white girl, if it’s all you can do
just twist that razor blade in your hand
the one with a silver edge at a right angle
to the fishbelly skin inside your arm

Tilt it enough to catch the light
once and again just like the light
revolving on a black and white
shining on blood in this time of war.

The Empty Chair

How many metaphors do we creative types have for those times of feeling blocked, repressed, empty or otherwise unable or unwilling to create?

I chose no picture for several days, and the one I drew from the box today seems quite fitting: a humble wooden chair in a small room, red desk, messy papers and bookshelves. Even what I think might be a crumpled white paper on the floor.

Ill in body and mind, I have not been present in that chair. Grey of thought, I have not looked through that window. Sick with shame and inertia, I have not even climbed the steps to that room.

Today chance brought out this photo (as, it must be admitted, my sole creative effort for the day since I am still not doing too well) and I am taking a moment to look at it.

No poem appears, nor am I feeling a jolt of energy that I will use for another essay or poem.

I am not transported into the room. I am not yet able to reach it–but the room is still there.

The chair is empty, but it is waiting for me.

O Brave New World?

One of the next steps on my neophyte poet’s journey involves meeting some actual poets. I live about 45 minutes from Berkeley and 90 minutes from San Francisco, so there are events I can attend. I’ve been reading and researching, while trying not to let myself get overwhelmed.

There are several kinds of poetry events, and I feel as if I would belong more at some than at others. But that’s just assumptions on my part at this stage–until I check something out for real, I shouldn’t talk myself out of anything. It’s just my insecurity that pictures me surrounded by edgy urban twentysomethings who will cast me out for not being politically relevant enough.

Learning about events and readings also fuels my insecurity by showing me how many poets are out there; names upon names that are unfamiliar to me. Do I have the mental capacity to care for my family and live with my issues while also learning a whole new culture and taking in the work of hundreds of new poets?

As I’ve been doing, I broke it down into small, specific and attainable. I found a coffeehouse in Berkeley that has a reading and open mic every Monday night, and I’m planning to go. If I don’t like it, I’ll remember that there are many flavors of events out there.

Ultimately, I need to find a way to connect with fellow writers in a way that works. It’s so easy for me to get the impression that the only way to become a published poet is to dump the rest of your life and do full-time networking. Hell, nowadays it’s easy to get the impression that to succeed at anything one has to become an expert networker and social media mogul.

I can’t let that idea stop me from writing. It’s true that my mental health issues make it challenging for me to be consistently extroverted. It’s true that, while my blogging is helping me make progress on the social media thing, I have a lot to learn about self-promotion. It’s true that my family needs a great deal of my time right now. But I have to believe–I have to–that if I write poetry that speaks well enough, it’s worth doing.

The Word Resound

#108 on my List of Things I Know Are Wonderful To Do And Wish I Did More Often: reading poetry out loud. Not to an audience, or even to a friend, but to myself and an empty room. Reading a poem out loud causes me to interact with it differently–I adore the way a poem that works looks on the page, and would not want to give that up. But saying it out loud does things for me.

Saying the words slows me down, for one thing…I’m a fast reader and tend to zip my eyes over something and take it in almost as a gestalt; this isn’t good when a poem has so many juicy words and phrases that can be individually savored.

But it’s more than that: reading a poem audibly creates a sense of ritual. I am invoking something with the vibrations of my voice, something that is a blend of the poet’s energy and my own. The other morning I read one of my favorite works, T. S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. I had never read it out loud before, and I found the parts that had moved me before to have a new poignancy and a new feeling of identification.

I go through phases of disorientation related to my mental health issues, and I’ve found that reading out loud steadies me. When I read something meaningful, I am sending a message out from a more centered and less frightened part of myself. It makes sense from a neurological point of view, but also from a spiritual one: it’s like reciting a prayer.

Try it, if you haven’t. But you have to be completely alone, so that you don’t fool yourself into thinking the message is meant for anyone but you. And no murmuring: say it loud and clear! It’s an important message, after all.