Let Us Write Together

You are loud today, world.

This is not a week when I can even try to defy you, blot you out or forget you.

There is no muffling the parts of your voice that shriek at me not to write. That tell me it won’t matter, that any story I tell is unimportant. That thinking about the projects I cherish is shallow and self-absorbed.

You are here in the room with me, humming and babbling and singing.

So get comfortable.

I have found extra chairs.

Sit here, pandemic.

Read over my shoulder, climate change.

Correct my spelling, cruelty. Play with my paper clips, ignorance. Have a mint, fear.

Let us write together.

The Sin of Happiness

I have a secret. A dirty, dirty secret. One that’s been embarrassing me more than my drug addiction, or mental illness, or other general faults and vulnerabilities.

I’m happy.

Writing that makes me immediately feel the need to write that I’m also sad, frustrated, angry, worried, afraid, et cætera. As is normal for the times we are living in. And those things are true.

But, at certain moments, I’m happy. And when I am—here’s the REALLY embarrassing part—I think I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.

The last five years have brought a flowering of creativity and the growth of a completely illogical degree of self-acceptance. Never total, never unchallenged, but there.

As the world goes to shit around me, I’m having fleeting experiences of joy and wholeness. My superego tries to tell me I’m shallow and self-absorbed for feeling these things. My heart is not listening.

Tear It Apart

So I’ve written something. Do I have the guts to rip it apart and put it together a new way? Or more than one new way?

The workshop I went to a few days ago talked about this. It was interesting to hear–although I’ve read a lot about revising poems, I’m not as exposed to writers talking about how to revise a short story or book. Joshua Mohr, the instructor, wasn’t shy about suggesting big changes instead of just small ones.

Chop out the first 600 words of this scene and start here instead. Move this scene and do this other scene first, then put in some of the first scene with suitable alterations. Shuffle the chapter order in your book. Cut a chapter that no longer fits with the arc of your story. Take the whole damn piece and rewrite it in a different voice.

I notice that, even when I’m excited about the possibilities a change has, I’m resistant to some of the big ones. One reason is I cling to the version that exists because it’s been around long enough to be my baby. To change it, I have to say goodbye to the previous version–or at least shove it into a smaller area of my brain to make room for the new one.

Perfectly normal. But the other reason change is hard for me is one that’s more problematic: it’s an attitude of scarcity.

Wait, I spent time and effort writing this. Maybe every word was an ordeal if I wasn’t in a good place at the time. If I rewrite a scene, or drop it completely, all that effort has been wasted! Oh no!

This flawed logic leads me farther into the land of scarcity: I only have a certain amount of time, strength, focus. I have a limited amount of words in me! If I don’t use every single one I manage to squeeze out, I’ll never write the things I want to write!

Unsurprisingly, I don’t write very well when I have this attitude. Nor do I enjoy it very much. My first book’s an intimidating project, but I must make room for the happy preschooler with her scissors and paste.

Cinderella

I spent yesterday in a fairy-tale world, feasting on delicacies and dancing with handsome princes and princesses. But the ball had to end, and I departed without leaving so much as a shoe behind.

Okay, so it was really a one-day writing workshop at the office of ZYZZYVA magazine in San Francisco. They accepted my piece for the event, and I’d promised myself that if I got in I’d go. So I did.

I call it a fairy-tale world because it’s so unknown to me; I had never been to that type of workshop before. I compare it to the ball because I associate it with having more money than I have; the cost was such that I don’t expect to be able to do such a thing again any time soon. Let’s just say I got my Christmas present early this year.

I enjoyed myself very much. The author who led it, Joshua Mohr, had insightful things to say about writing personal narrative. Here’s a distillation of what I feel was the most valuable reminder for me as I work on my book:

When you write a narrative that’s about yourself, you still need to treat the “you” in the story like a character. You need to pay attention to the same things you’d look at when working with a fictional character you’re creating: Are they interesting? What am I doing to let the reader get invested in them and want to know more? Is it clear what they want, or think they want? What are their obstacles, internal and external? Am I building complexity; giving the reader new perspective on them with every scene? Do I avoid either idealizing or demonizing them?

This kind of perspective will help me as I make choices about the structure of my book: order of chapters, what to keep and what to cut, and what isn’t written yet but needs to be.

I’m aware of a part of me that feels envious when I think of how many workshops and classes some of my fellow writers go to, or that focuses on my wistful desire to be someone who can do the same (or, for that matter, who can submit a ton of stuff without worrying about how those submission fees will add up.)

But that’s my baggage talking. It’s understandable that I want these things, but focusing on what I don’t have is toxic. I create things when I am focused on what I do have, what I truly want, and what I can do to move closer to it.

Writing Into the Void

So, about that voice in my head saying civilization is doomed and there is no point to me writing…

I’ve been writing a lot, both poetry and prose. My nonfiction book is beginning to take shape in my mind as the segments I write start to arrange themselves in order and bring ideas as to what should go between them. It’s raw, it’s real, and I genuinely believe it will be worth reading. My first full-length poetry collection is taking shape nicely as well…neither of these things will be done soon, but they have a new level of form and reality.

Then I hear the latest lecture on climate change and nihilism crashes into me. We’ll all be dead soon. No one will ever read my work and it wouldn’t do them any good if they did.

Granted, those thoughts belong to the extreme end of the spectrum…not everyone believes in the very short-term extinction of our species. What is certain is that change is here, much of which is irreversible. Life will get harder, conflicts over dwindling resources will grow, and catastrophic events will occur.

So is there a point to me writing about the subjects I do? Why try to help addicts, or the mentally ill, or both, when the larger world is in crisis? Why does it matter, in the quick or slow apocalypse, whether John Doe stays off drugs or out of the hospital?

I start to drown in these thoughts, and must return to my most basic principle:

It matters to me.

Even if it’s only about how present people get to be for whatever happens, it matters to me.

Being conscious and capable of love matters. Suffering and dying as a human rather than a numbed zombie or cornered animal matters. Being in the mix, a member of humanity, instead of watching from the sidelines, matters.

Flooded

How do we know when we’re writing too much?

It’s tempting to think they’re’s no such thing as too much. Maybe that’s true for some people, especially if the things they write cover a variety of styles and subject matter.

But this week, I’m conscious that I may be writing too much of a project too quickly. My nonfiction project contains many memoir-style pieces for the purposes of outreach, and I am working on some that cover a very dark time in my life.

My task is to convey, at different times, an authentic tone of what it’s like to be a practicing addict, to take doses of drugs you know might kill you and not care as long as you get high, to be deep in clinical depression or overwhelming anxiety, to be suicidal, to be convinced that suicide is the best thing you can do for those you love, to know that you have lost and drugs have won, to plan your own disappearance and death, to know that you deserve nothing better…

My task is to write it so well that an addict or a mental illness sufferer will identify strongly, while someone not familiar with the feelings will have a window opened to a bit of understanding.

Strong feedback I’m getting tells me I am at least partially succeeding in this. But there’s a cost: I’m writing it authentically enough to affect myself as well.

Floods of old emotions, ones that are always there but more in the background, wash over me. Old grief, guilt, and shame come up often. The otherworldly loneliness of that time echoes.

Too much of this is dangerous to my current mental health. I’m noticing hits to my self-care and changes in how I relate to my family.

These things need to be written…but I need to pace myself.

You Gave Me Money For This?

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For the first time, I have exchanged poems I wrote for money. What a trip.

When I was the featured poet at a reading on Friday night, I brought copies of my first chapbook with me. Chapbooks are simple, low-budget productions, usually containing between 10 and 15 poems. I didn’t think I would get it done in time, because my date for the reading had been moved up, but with the help of my spouse I did.

I was looking forward to the feature, and determined to focus on enjoying myself at the mic and not worry about whether anyone would want a copy. Realistically, I expected to sell 5 or less to the modestly sized audience. I sold ten, so I’m very happy.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog, or my old one, knows that me writing and then beginning to join the writing community has been quite a process of change. You might have read an entry two years ago describing my first attendance at a poetry open mic. or my first submissions.

So if you write, and long to develop your writing more, I hope you will take encouragement from the things I share. I’m a messed up person, but I took one step at a time and I did these things. I think you can too.

The Best Thing I Ever Write

Periodically, I need to remind myself why I am writing. It’s not to get my ego stroked. It’s not for the high I get when performing. It’s not for the thrill of getting published. Those things are all gravy, and it’s easy for me to get drawn in to this exciting subculture and try to do too much. When I do that, it’s easy for me to start judging myself for not having the energy to go to nearly as many events as a lot of poets seem to do.

I am writing because the very best thing I ever write might help someone someday. That’s what started it, and that’s the core to which I return. I want there to come a time, in the dark watches of some wakeful night, when someone picks up something I wrote and it helps them get through until morning.

I will never know what the best thing I ever write is. It might not be what I expect. It might make someone feel less alone, or it might cause them to feel more accepting of some darkness within themselves. It might carry a metaphor that helps someone create their own personal metaphor as a talisman. It might be a piece that I don’t even rate very highly among my body of work.

Returning to this basic idea is even more important as I begin to consider pulling my prose together and morphing it into a longer project. Changes in style and a thousand different ideas about voice and structure try to distract me, but I must not let them.

Give Me An Inch…

Sometimes it’s good to get greedy.

I’m currently working on applications for no less than three different “if you win you will get some writing-related experience for free” scholarship contests for writers with financial need. One is for a fellowship in a writer’s community in SF, one is for a literary seminar and one is for an editorial services scholarship.

These feel different from regular submissions. Usually, I’m submitting a piece for judgment and the result is solely based upon the reaction to the piece. For these, I’m presenting myself. In addition to writing samples, I am putting together essays about me and why I’m a good poet to subsidize. Why I have potential, or why I am useful to the poetry world.

I had an incredible time at an open mic last Friday, and got asked to feature soon at another. I’m on a “high” that is probably fueled by a bit of hypomania, but I believe it is also genuine happiness about what being a poet means to me these days. These feelings are helping me take action on these scholarships.

Sometimes, my opinion of my work crashes and submitting things feels ridiculous. This appears to be pretty normal for writers. But when the opposite is happening–when I believe in myself and I’m excited about the things I am going to write–well, why not try?

More Than Words

I feel as if I somehow gave birth to two beautiful aliens.

The gallery opening was amazing. The work of sixteen artists on display, along with the ten poems that served as inspiration for them. There were two paintings that used my poem as their source.

How do I describe the way seeing them felt? To say I was touched is ridiculously inadequate. Especially since the subject of my poem was so personal (it’s about my daughter) it was overwhelming to see works that artists made with so much time and care.

I got to meet both artists and talk to one of them in more depth about her process. It was clear that the artists put their hearts into the pieces; that my poem resonated with them strongly enough to bring forth this kind of dedication on their part.

Staring at one of the paintings, I felt my mind journey into the depths of the abstract scene portrayed. I felt the world in it take on a life of its own. I had a visceral experience of the fact that a poem can be more than words, more than a set of ideas. That a poem, or any other creative work, can be a spark that ignites an unknown universe.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Laureate

Last night I went to a reading by California’s current Poet Laureate, Dana Giola. It was interesting to hear from someone who has had such a long and varied career–he’s a former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, with an MBA and a PhD in literature. He has taught and promoted poetry education all over the state for years.

The contrast between seeing his poetry-as-my-career persona and the more intimate experience of hearing his poetry was fascinating. He, like many poets, writes of love, grief, communion with nature, and all of his human experiences. However polished and goal-oriented he may be in his endeavors, when it comes to his poems he is naked. And thank the gods for it–how else could I feel connected to him and keep any feelings of envy and inadequacy to a minimum?

Because (and this will be no shock to those who have read any of my writing) I do have these feelings. A career such as his is not achievable for me unless I invent a time machine and manage to get started writing well before my late forties. I must focus on what I can do in the time I have, and I must keep my eye on that which makes me want to write whether it leads anywhere or not.

Strolling With Sewage

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

Sometimes, out in nature, the lovely spiritual metaphor we encounter is a graceful bird soaring through the air. Or it’s a flower, blooming in response to its inborn clock. Perhaps a river, shining silver in the distance and promising change.

Sometimes not.

I was making a pilgrimage. I’d dropped my daughter off at her classes and driven my longing-to-be-virtuous self to a regional park that has a paved, hilly trail around a reservoir. I was going to walk that trail, a trail difficult enough to make me sweat and ache a bit, and I was going to be purified. I’d purge away the recent days of little exercise; scour away the depressive miasma and drop bits of my recent bout of anxieties here and there on the trail, leaving them behind me when I was done. I’d have a nice conversation with my personal God, too, and come away feeling better and clearer.

Yes, that was my agenda–but, as often happens, my agenda did not control. First of all, my body did not appear to be on board with the plan at all. Far sooner than usual, I began to ache and be winded. So what, I told myself. The trail’s less than three miles. You can do it. Look around at the trees; smell that fresh air. Isn’t this nice?

I drew in a deep, intentional breath, and stopped abruptly as I detected a decidedly un-fresh smell. Surmounting the next rise, I heard a loud motor and discovered a sewage truck just ahead of me on the paved trail. Two men in vests were monitoring the pumping of the trail bathroom’s contents through a large hose into the truck. Waving politely, I breathed shallowly as I walked by and inhaled in relief when I got upwind. Soon I’d gained enough distance for the quiet and freshness to be restored.

I tried again to get into the groove of feeling peaceful in nature, and my mind wandered. But my anxiety wouldn’t leave me, and my mind wouldn’t stop skittering around planning the rest of the day, week and year. I asked my God, out loud, to help me open up and enjoy being out here.

As if in answer, a loud rumble approached from behind me. The sewage truck was back, and I hastily retreated from the trail to let it pass. I had a sinking feeling about where it was going, and sure enough, five minutes later the smell greeted me again as I approached the next restroom being emptied. Is this how the whole walk is going to be, I grumbled, and then reproved myself for my lack of gratitude. Think about these two workers, I told myself. This is what they do all day while you get to walk in the fresh air!

Still, it was distracting, and I really wanted to achieve a certain state of mind. I got a bright idea: I’ll stop and rest for a while, and that will give them time to get far enough ahead that I won’t catch up with them. So I found a bench and settled down. Look now, look at the living gray sky and the brown brush. See the rippling water and hear the chaotic bird cries. Get out of your head. But I didn’t get out of my head. I sank deeper and deeper, burrowing into extreme detail of one of my darker genres of phantasy.

There, on that bench in the fresh air, I (as I tend to do) lost and was abandoned by those I love, became an outcast, and moved beyond the will to live. Birds called me, and I couldn’t answer, trapped in my own mental theater. At last I managed to shake myself out of it enough to talk to my God. Why do I think about these things, God? Why do I do this? I got up and started walking again. If you want me to think about these things this way, that’s okay, but if you don’t want me in that place, please help me think about what you want me to think about.

I kept walking, and kept on talking, and began to feel a creeping sense of virtue (at least I’m trying, I’m saying something, I’m making an effort to ask for divine will and that’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it?) when I heard the engines roaring up ahead and detected the familiar scent. I’d caught up.

Inspiration came to me. I was almost halfway around the circular trail now; why not just turn around and walk back the way I came? The sewage truck could complete its loop in peace, and I’d be able to do the contemplative walk thing. So I turned around and began. I continued my dialogue, mostly in my head now, and thought about the stress and depression I’ve been struggling with lately.

Then I heard the sound behind me. The truck was back. For some reason, it had turned around too.

That was the last straw. I started laughing. So, God, getting archetypal on me, I see. Fine. Let us contemplate the spiritual meaning of this portable vat of shit following me around.

Are you trying to tell me that I can’t outrun the shit of my life; that I must coexist/walk with it?

Are you showing me that cleansing myself is going to be less simple and more messy than I would like it to be?

Or are you in an alchemical mood, and just shoving a huge lump of prima materia at me? What do you want me to make of it?

I left with questions, but no answers. I wondered if the real message and lesson had to do with the inadvisability of having a spiritual agenda. I’m not sorry for any of it, though–it was an act of intention. Despite what they say about good intentions, I believe an act of conscious positive intention is one of the most powerful things I can do.

Mentioned

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My first poetry award! I received a Second Honorable Mention in an annual Bay Area poetry contest. At their monthly get-together, I read my poem along with many other winners (there were four categories) and got to hear theirs.

The little kid in me is very excited about this. When I enter a contest or send off a submission, I look at it as gathering experience. I’m still so new to sharing my poetry that I need experience to become comfortable with the process. But I’d be lying if I said getting some recognition isn’t fun. This comes on the heels of doing that small feature, which was also an honor.

Here’s what I want to say to poets who haven’t yet read their work in public: TRY IT!

I first read poems in public on June 4, 2016. That’s less than nine months ago.

What Do We Want?

“What do we want?
Immortality!
When do we want it?
Now!”

—from “The Poets March on Washington” by James Cummins

But seriously…what do we want for our poetry? What do we want it to do? Not that it has to do anything, of course. It can be only for ourselves if that’s what we want—Emily Dickinson ordered that all of her poems be destroyed after her death. We only have them because someone ignored her wishes.

I’m running into this question more and more since I’ve begun sharing my work at readings and preparing actual submissions. I find that my process of revision feels different when I am anticipating reading the poem out loud to a group, as opposed to thinking only about submitting it in written form.

Beyond this, I want to think about how I’d like my poetry to affect other people. Do I want it to help someone understand something? Do I want to make someone feel less alone? Or do I want, in the end, just to give others bits of the oh-yes-I-don’t-know-why-but-yes feeling I get when a poem speaks to me?

If I am sharing my poetry only to get fortune (ha!) or fame (slightly less vehement ha!) or even just to get appreciation and positive ego stroking, I’ll set myself up for disappointment.

What is your fantasy about your poetry’s role?

Sudden Ease

Two days ago, over a bowl of oatmeal, I was ambushed by a poem. The seed of it had appeared the day before, and was suddenly mushrooming into near-draft form. Obediently, my half-awake self reached for a pen and wrote things down. In half an hour flat, I had something better than the things I’d been staring at sporadically for two weeks.

“You will find that you may write and rewrite a poem and it never seems quite right. Then a much better poem may come rather fast and you wonder why you bothered with all that work on the earlier poem. Actually, the hard work you do on one poem is put in on all poems. The hard work on the first poem is responsible for the sudden ease of the second.”
—Richard Hugo, from The Triggering Town

If I were reading this in a church, this would be the time to shout “Amen!”

I have thought about abandoning a poem when it feels awkward or stuck…and sometimes I do put it aside for a while. This passage affirms what I think I already knew: working on a poem is never wasted time, even if that version of that poem isn’t destined to become a star. The work of the past two weeks bore an unexpected fruit, that’s all.

Winning Formula

There’s no one way to stimulate creativity. For me, the seeds of a new poem can come at the oddest times. One thing I’ve noticed, however, is the role played by boredom, fatigue, or concentrating on a task like driving or dishes. A mental state in which thoughts drift randomly and hook up in unexpected ways.

Recently, I had the most glaring example of this…it was the night before my father-in-law died, and I was up at the family’s home being with them in their vigil. We were all catching bits of sleep where we could, in between listening to his breathing. I lay in a trundle bed, stupidly tired, and could not fall asleep. I listened to some music on my headphones, tried again; still no dice.

My mind began to wander, and BAM! the seed of a new poem appeared. Was it a poem about death, or grief, or what it’s like waiting for it this way? No. The poem is (as far as I can tell at this stage) completely unrelated to what was going on. The trigger appears to have been a phrase in a poem I’d read the day before, linked to a different poem I’d been working on, linked to a song I had heard…you get the idea. These things drifted through my fatigue-drugged mind and collided.

And it wasn’t just an idea, it was an idea. One of those juicy ones that gives you a little shiver when it clicks into place.

Those who speak of the drawbacks of technology, or those who caution against the overscheduling of children’s lives, understand that we all need time to daydream. Boredom and random mental drifting are vital to imagination. I know that I interfere with my creativity when I distract myself from insomnia with my iPad instead of just letting myself drift, although I forgive myself because it’s the least of evils at times.

What is the Ocean Thinking?

Here is today’s picture prompt. Do you know the most important lesson we learn from prompts? That anything can be an inspiration for a poem. Anything. A poet in touch with his or her creativity need never fear boredom.

Even with an abstract image, I can access a multitude of angles for poem seeds. For an image like the above, there are so many ways to go.

There are the most straightforward ones: A journey. Loneliness. Nature. A character: what is the walker thinking? Where is he or she going? Why?

Oh, but there is so much more. Gestalt theories of dreamwork postulate that everything we see in a dream is a part of our own consciousness. When I look at a picture, I sort of reverse this idea and imagine that anything in it can have a consciousness and a story.

What is the ocean thinking? Or the sand? Or the walking stick? Or the walker’s shoes?

Who or what is seeing this scene from above? What’s the story there?

Is this whole scene happening in someone else’s thoughts? Do they miss the walker or try to imagine what he or she is doing?

Do we want to delve shamelessly into archetypes? We’ve got symbolism from water, mud, traveler/seeker, the rod…have fun.

It may all sound cheesy. One hundred flights of thought may lead to one promising seed–or less.

But contemplating a picture–or any image we see, as long as we do it with conscious intention–invites our creativity in for tea; helps it feel welcome.

And when it feels welcome, it’s more likely to drop by with gifts.

Picture This

Today's prompt

Today’s prompt.

For about ten days last year, I drew a new picture from a bag as a poem prompt every day. It was meant to be an improv exercise as well as a meditative one; if something I wrote led to the seeds of a more developed poem that was fine.

I gave it up when I found myself missing days. Perfectionism is truly the bane of creativity.

It was a mistake to stop doing it—maybe I would have been inconsistent about it at times, but even the brief foray into daily pictures yielded several poems I am glad to have in my body of work.

The most interesting thing about picture prompts is the space between picture and poem. A shot of a snarling badger becomes a poem about repression of the Self. A shot of a laughing chimpanzee becomes a poem about meeting God. A barren desert landscape turns into a poem that makes people laugh out loud.

Most of the pictures in my stash come from old National Geographic magazines. I obtained about 200 old issues, and find the cutting out of pictures to be therapeutic in times of anxiety. Nature scenes, people, animals…and abstracts. I’ll cut a picture at places that are not the obvious ones if it creates an interesting image. Some of them, on the other hand, are quite dull…it’s up to my imagination to get an idea from them more interesting than “Fuck, that’s a lot of sand.”

I’m thinking I will start to pick a picture every day again–but with some new rules:

1) I am not obligated to write anything inspired by it, but I must leave the picture somewhere in plain sight all day so that random thoughts can percolate.

2) Then I glue it into a binder, so that I can go back to it if I wish.

3) The most important rule: If I forget, blow off or otherwise ignore my picture stash for one or more days (as is not unlikely because hello, imperfect human being) I am allowed to come back to doing it as soon as possible.