Tag Archives: Poetry

Reminder

Hello, reader. Remember, I’m moving all of my activity to my other page, Not My Last Words. If you follow me here, you may want to go and follow me there. Not This Song will disappear in June.

Check out my newest entry, Oak Tree Debate, at notmylastwords.com and continue watching me deal with life, creativity, poetry, and weird ways to hang on for one more day.

Selfishness

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How far am I willing to go to save my life?

Last week, I stood in front of a small group of poets and read a selection of my work for 25 minutes. It was the Monday after the inauguration, and many of the listeners had spent the weekend marching. I knew that later, at the open mic, many of the poems would reflect current events. I worried that my work, particularly at this time, would be judged self-absorbed and turned too far inward when external things are so urgent.

Here is what I said to the audience at the beginning of my reading:

“I cannot do justice to these times. Part of me wanted to attempt to assemble a body of work about what is happening to our country and society. But trying to do that would have been dishonest. I was invited to feature here, and that means I was invited to share who I am as a poet.

The truth is, one might say that I am a selfish poet. While many of you are trying to save us all with poetry, I am often only trying to save myself–and, perhaps, someone else who doesn’t think they deserve to be saved. 

The truth is, I mostly write about the things that keep some of us bound and silenced on the sidelines. I write about what I know. I know about being a drug addict. I know about being a mental patient. I know about being a woman, and a mother. I know what it is to want to die. I know what it’s like to decide to fight to live.”

When I am thinking clearly–when I am not drowning in a miasma of depression and shame–I believe that writing, reaching, fighting for those who share these experiences is important. I believe it is a contribution. I believe that helping someone wake, even for a moment, from the nightmares inside their skull helps the world.

Do not think I don’t feel anger and outrage. Do not think, ever, that I don’t care. But I can’t afford to keep worrying about what you think of me. It’s going to kill me.

So I must accept the truth. This–this writing, this poetry, this exploration and celebration of our inner worlds–this is my playing field. This is my way of fighting the oppression and sick culture that wants us bound, silenced and unconscious. This is what I have to give.

If this is what I have to give, I want to give it wholeheartedly. This means learning to let go of hoping for approval. This means not fearing the labels of selfish, self-absorbed, and all of the others I want so desperately to refute.

I want to help. Perhaps if I manage to improve my health I will find small ways of helping in the external world. But what I want most is to support others in their fight against despair. If you are out there, as an activist and a warrior, I want to offer illogical hope when you are burned out. If you are in bed, paralyzed with depression or pain, I want to help you hang on until a slightly better day. By sharing my inner world, I want to help others explore theirs. I want people to have an inner world that sustains and strengthens them through anything.

Self-Delighting, Self-Affrighting

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“…Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.
–from “A Prayer for My Daughter” by W.B. Yeats

These are the type of words to which I cling: words that remind me that my soul is capable of light and growth regardless of external circumstances. With the latest political catastrophes, though, I feel that such things are one of my dirty little secrets. How dare I believe that joy and peace are possible while things are turning to shit around me? How dare my soul remember anything but impending doom?

I can’t help it, though. During my life I’ve met so many people who were happier and more at peace in their lives than I can imagine being. They came from all walks of life, dealt with poverty or illness or injustice, and carried what seemed to be an independent joy about them. They cried and fought and grieved like anyone else, yet they were also able to rejoice and rest and laugh.

That’s what I want, and it doesn’t mean I want to retreat from the problems of the world and huddle beside some inner fire. It means I want that feeling of wholeness to accompany me where I need to go.

Writing this–confessing that I feel guilty for thinking about an inspiring and comforting passage of poetry–makes me aware of what a dangerous place I’m in. I already struggle to feel worthy of any space on this planet. If I let this guilt control me, I’ll fall farther and farther into the kind of place I described in On The Advice Of My Solicitor:

I just want not to be a burden anymore. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and consume resources and imagine the contempt others feel toward me.

…Take my eyes and give them to one who is blind. Take my hands and create, build, fix what is broken. Take this pretty-good soprano voice, that sings so little, and play lullabies for children fighting nightmares. Send these feet to march in the protests against racism and social injustice. Take this brain, hammer out these kinked chemical impulses, and turn its intelligence toward solving the dilemmas of our species. Take these words and craft them into speeches that will liberate, or into the right phrase at the right time for someone who needs it.

Take this neglected flesh and feed it to starved dogs in dusty fields. Take the food I’ll no longer eat and give it to the hungry. Take the phosphorus and minerals from my bones and replenish the tired soil of my planet.

The disabled are going to suffer under the new regime, whether the disabilities are physical or mental. We don’t need to be inflicting extra suffering on ourselves. How do I stop it? How do I really act upon my belief that if I harm myself, I give the enemies of love a victory?

It’s not a matter of trying to believe in the “self-delighting” part of my soul, or of understanding that the truest poison of many fears comes from the “self-affrighting” part. I know these things; they stand immutable in my psyche. It’s about giving myself permission to use the power of this truth.

We Interrupt This Depression…

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My dark phases, hellish as they might be, are not uninterrupted darkness. The grim or lackluster parts are almost always interrupted by moments of grace. Much grace comes from my family, for I am blessed not to live in isolation.

Beyond these everyday blessings, sometimes I get moments. The kind I’ll remember years later. They pierce through the fog and join their neighbors in the innermost vaults of my consciousness, there to be defended to the death.

About ten days ago, I drove about an hour and a half north to go to a poetry reading in Napa County. The reading was held at the town’s library, which like many buildings in the town basically backed up to a vineyard. Lines of comfortable chairs were arranged facing the windows of the main room, and the reading poet was silhouetted against one side of the bright span of windows. While listening, we gazed at the green vines under the slanting sun of a late summer afternoon.

The beauty was so surreal that I began to feel as if I were on another world. I found myself thinking of recent tragedies in the news, and about how much privilege is involved with this tranquil setting, but even the familiar sadness and guilt faded into just being present.

The Moment with a capital M wasn’t only this beauty, though. It wasn’t just the careful packing away and stowing of a lovely memory. No, the magic part came next, in equal parts spirituality and science fiction.

I was struck, suddenly, with a feeling of being apart from the time stream. The concept of parallel timelines exists in many sci-fi universes, and I have been exposed to it long enough for it to be a part of my thinking at times. Right there and then, at that moment, I felt my current timeline brushing against another one. The other timeline was one, probably one of many, in which I was not in that beautiful room because I was not alive.

In that timeline I didn’t live to write any poetry, or read any, or drive to Napa to share some. I died sometime between 2009 and 2011, you see, from a drug overdose or some other self-destructive act. My chair was empty.

It sounds a bit trite as I attempt to describe it: I had a moment of being grateful to be alive, blah blah…but there was something about that empty chair, almost superimposed against the one I was occupying, that made my worries and shames lose power for a moment. The words, the window, the sun were my reality, mine, there as opposed to not there.

There I was, in the middle of this period of depression and poor health, feeling so powerfully alive that all else faded. And when it came my turn to read something of my own, what need was there to fear? The words were mine, my reality, coalesced in this fortunate timeline from ghosts of might-have-beens.

Social Centipede

Ever heard of the dilemma of the centipede? The story goes that someone asks a centipede how in the world it manages to coordinate moving all of those legs smoothly. The centipede thinks about it, trying to form a description, but as soon as it begins to think about what its legs are doing it becomes hopelessly fouled up.

A couple of months ago, someone challenged me to write a poem about “the joy of belonging.” I wrestled with it several times, never coming up with a hook that pleased me. The challenge, in fact, probably had a very opposite effect to that intended: because I was unable to come up with a poem about it, my feelings of loneliness and not belonging became sharper. I had to admit that belonging wasn’t an experience I knew well enough to write about.

I know others feel this way; I even know I belong more than I think I do. But it bugged me that I couldn’t evoke one scene, one instance of joyful belonging with enough reality to spark a poem.

The closest I got–close enough for preliminary scribbles, which I might try to expand at some point–is remembering how singing with a group feels. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the other singers, producing a sound that’s blending with others to form a whole greater than the sum of the parts, brought me some of my most wonderful emotional and spiritual experiences.

Part of the magic, of course, is the liberation from self-consciousness. For me, singing like that is a rare instance of not analyzing myself. When I’m focused on oxygen, or lack thereof, and hearing the other singers, and reading the music, and watching the conductor, there is finally enough going on to make my brain shut the fuck up.

I belong, then, but the reason I belong is that I’m no longer thinking about whether or not I belong. As soon as I start thinking again, it’s back to the dilemma of the centipede.

If lack of self-absorption is a key to belonging, I know there are other times I belong. I belong when I’m doing service, focused on something that needs to be done to help others. I belong when I’m fully present with someone I love, having a moment free of my fears and other demons. And, if this is true, I know I can belong more often if I work at it.

But how do I describe the joy of belonging, when it vanishes as soon as I even ask if it is there?

In the years since coming close to death and entering recovery, I’ve become more creative and passionate than in any previous era of my life. I’m more capable of loving both myself and others, even as I become more aware of the uncomfortable truths about myself that try to interfere. I’m more alive, more human–and I’ve never felt so lonely.

Every time I think I can’t feel any lonelier, I do. With or without good reason, loneliness walks with me, sleeps with me, sits beside me at this desk. I don’t know if it’s part of maturing, or part of grieving. I don’t know if everyone is feeling this lonely on the inside (surely, they can’t be…can they?)

What would it be to feel the opposite of loneliness, and be aware of feeling it? To exist in my own consciousness enough to name the feeling, yet out of myself enough not to be sucked back into separateness?

I almost wrote that I’ve never experienced such a state, but it isn’t true. I have, during very brief moments, under circumstances I fear I won’t ever encounter again. But whether I ever do or not, I can work toward the somewhat more attainable kind of belonging that comes from creating things with other people.

The Lorites

The idea for this piece comes from Anathem by Neal Stephenson. If you want a book that’s a bit of a dense read but well worth it–if you want a book that will draw you into a different and compelling world–if you want a book that will fuck your mind slowly and exquisitely–read it. There aren’t any spoilers here.

All you need to know about the Lorites is that they’re mentioned here and there in the book as an philosophical order. The guiding principle of their philosophy is simple: that there is no such thing as a new idea. Every idea that anyone in this present can conceive has been thought of before.

The Lorites are a minor sect and not given much thought by most. They have some practical use, since they have been around a long time and collected huge repositories of knowledge. If you are developing a “new” idea and want to know how badly you’re reinventing the wheel, consult the Lorites.

I am susceptible to Lorite philosophy, and not only because Lori is my first name. Having the human desire to be special, one of my negative voices is the one telling me that whatever I’m doing, writing, thinking is nothing new. Not only is it not new, but whoever’s done it before has doubtless done it better.

Writing a poem? Surely one of the thousands of past poets has captured the same essence of thought and feeling, and even though they didn’t repeat my exact sequence of words the difference isn’t big enough to make mine worth anything. Writing a speech? Someone’s done it more persuasively. Writing personal essays? I’m just reiterating basic human experiences, after all.

Dreaming of workshops, groups, work that helps others? There are so many out there more qualified and more functional–and since what I have to offer can’t be new, there’s no way my work can ever compensate for my limitations.

I imagine that the era I live in is more conducive to Lorite thought with the Internet linking the ideas of more people, present and past, than ever before. How easy it is to believe that our gifts are duplicated or surpassed by the billions out there!

Embraced in a balanced way, the Lorites can give me perspective and a healthful dose of humility. After all, to believe we’ve come up with something totally new would be to believe ourselves prophets–and a world full of nothing but prophets would be chaotic indeed.

But, of course, I don’t stop there. It becomes one of the weapons used by my addiction, or by my depression, or by my self-destructive impulses in general. It gets used to paralyze me, sap my creative energy and promote procrastination and apathy.

I’m not alone, nor does someone need to share my issues to be with me in this. For humans in general, it targets one of the deepest questions in our hearts:
“Is there really any fucking point to all this? ”
And since there are countless ways to answer this question, or to admit that we don’t know how to answer it, it’s easy to get stuck.

I certainly don’t know how. And I don’t know how to reconcile it with my growing need to create. As I sit here, right at this moment, I’m aware of stories I’m making up to comfort myself.

I tell myself that apples aren’t new–yet people enjoy the different taste of all the ways they can be prepared. It gives them pleasure, and comfort, and lets them have variety in the way they get needed nourishment.

I tell myself that quilts aren’t new–yet people enjoy the myriad ways of assembling them. It gives them pleasure, and comfort, and lets them have variety in the way they get needed warmth.

I tell myself that spiritual principles aren’t new, yet people enjoy different ways of framing and presenting them. I tell myself that emotions aren’t new, yet each of us responds more or less to the way they are expressed by artists of all kinds.

Love isn’t new.
Beauty isn’t new.
Death isn’t new.
Sex isn’t new.

I’m not new. And yet I am.

Ash Eliot

I also bought a teddy bear last weekend. It was a gesture of over-the-top nurturing to go along with the other extra care involved in my Discount Psych Ward. My social phobia and anxiety have made recovery group meetings and such more of an ordeal lately, and I thought having something to hold onto during the meetings might help a little. So we went to Build-a-Bear and I chose the softest one they had.

On Sunday, I took him to one of my regular meetings with me. I got some odd looks, but that was fine. I also got many smiles and a few requests to hold him. The willingness to be childlike, or even foolish, in recovery is important enough to me to have written about it before, and this was just another example.

But my new friend did more than comfort me during a meeting. He also made me think more deeply about poetry, what it means to me, how I feel about wanting to write it, and my spirituality.

How, exactly, did a little teddy bear manage this? Well, I’m sure you are dying to know.

Someone asked me what the bear’s name was. I told her I named him Ash Eliot: Eliot because my favorite poet is T.S. Eliot and Ash because my favorite poem by him is called Ash Wednesday.

“Well,” she said, “I was never into any of that intellectual stuff.” Or something like that. I didn’t know what to say. I felt awkward and ashamed, as if I’d somehow insulted her or acted superior about having some knowledge of literature. I felt other. The meeting started, and I tried to put my feeling of awkwardness and hurt behind me. But I didn’t want to let it go like that; I wanted to be understood.

Yes, and I’d also like a pony. We all want to be understood, but that doesn’t mean it is going to happen. St. Francis was right to advise praying to understand instead; it avoids any temptation to make our lives contingent on someone else’s ability to see.

But if I could, I’d like to communicate more about how my love of poetry has nothing to do with intellectualism. I’d like to be more “out of the closet” about it, and be accepted for this among my peers of all interests. In this fantasy world, everyone would realize that it’s simply one of my roads to spirituality, as necessary as water, as vital as warmth. I’d feel free to talk about poetry in a meeting that same way someone else might talk about Jesus if that’s his or her particular road to the divine.

Ash Eliot–and that fact that I chose that name in the first place, that a poet was the loving companion spirit I wanted with me–made me think about all of this. Today, in the library, I sought comfort from a book by the poet Mary Oliver, and found words of understanding there. She writes that poetry “…carries one from this green and mortal world…lifts the latch and gives a glimpse into a greater paradise.” She writes: “Poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost.”

Sounds spiritual to me. If poetry is one’s thing, then it is spiritual. Why should I question it? And why should I be ashamed? It’s just another part of me, and being honest about it is just another part of presenting myself as I am. Let it be one of my distinguishing traits, even if it is awkward sometimes. That’s the one who is dual diagnosis. That’s the one who brings a teddy bear to meetings. That’s the one who is really into poetry and writing and stuff.

If it makes me other, then I need to trust in the idea that there will be friends out there for me that are okay with, or even attracted to, this flavor of other. For this flavor, this mixed seasoning of the meat that is my self, is the only kind of nourishment that will never fail me.