Tag Archives: Writing

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.

Moving

After feeling very stuck for a while, I’ve made a decision.

I have two web pages, Not This Song and Not My Last Words. Lately, whenever I want to write, I am getting paralyzed because I can’t choose which site draws my focus more.

Life and art are blending. I can’t write about the conditions I live with without writing about how they affect my writing or how my writing affects them.

So here’s the deal…this page is migrating. Soon, Not My Last Words will be my only site. Over the next month or two, I will cross-post what I see as the most important works from here so that they will continue to be available in the Not My Last Words archives.

I request any loyal followers to follow notmylastwords.com and let the journey continue!

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.

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.

Not My Story

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I have so much I could be writing about lately, but I haven’t been writing about any of it. I haven’t been writing about any of it because it feels as if it’s not my story to tell. It feels disrespectful to be making personal essays out of events that, while they affected me, affect others so much more.

The last two weeks have seen the end of my relative’s journey on this plane; he died the morning of June 14. I was there during his last hours, and saw him only minutes after he died. Other family members and I sat with his body until the funeral home workers came to transport him, and we watched him be wrapped up and taken away.

I was there, and I had thoughts, and I had feelings…but it’s not really my story. It’s his story, and his wife’s, and his children’s. I know that the feelings I have are nothing compared with how they feel.

It’s not my story…yet, inevitably, it is. It may be the ultimate self-absorption, but my lens is the only one I have. I’m incapable of an omniscient perspective; anything I write about is really about my experience of the thing. Even if I write from the perspective of another character, it’s still my projection being fueled by my attitudes.

So I’m aware of my own self-absorption right now. I’m aware of the part of my brain responsible for interpreting everything happening in terms of “What does this mean to me? How does this change the structure of my inner world? How do these truths apply to my journey?”

I’m judging myself for this. I feel ashamed of spending any mental energy on philosophizing while people I love are in need of comfort. I’m ashamed of the fact that, even while I carry out actions that reflect my desire to comfort them, a part of my mind is off crafting metaphors.

This judgment, however justified it might be, is dangerous. Blocking my personal writing is dangerous. Turning my metaphor factory into a moral issue is dangerous. Yesterday, I found myself tearing pictures out of magazines with a very diagnostic type of focus…my symptoms are rising, and I cannot afford to reject the best and least harmful coping mechanisms I have.

I need to allow myself to feel, and write, and make existential gold out of straw. I need to let myself think about what witnessing a death has made me feel about life, and recovery, and meaning.

Fruit Inspection

Recently, I reached out to a few people from my past…college friends and other people who haven’t seen me in years. In several cases, I noted diffidently that if they wanted to know more about what I had been doing they could check out the things I have written here.

What I did not always say was that reading these things might help them make a decision about whether, or to what degree, they wanted any renewed contact with me.

Offering Not This Song as a source of information makes me feel…well, vulnerable is a mild word for what it makes me feel. At the same time, though, I’m proud of having something–anything–to offer.

It has been bringing an old quotation to mind, one from Christian writings:
“By their fruits ye shall know them.
Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?”

It’s been pointed out that many would-be creators spend a lot of time talking about what our fruit will look like, instead of creating it and letting it speak for itself. Sometimes it feels safer to explain a creation than to make it, especially if we really want people to get it. It feels safer to keep it unmade until we can make the perfect version of it.

At any rate, I am having the experience of inviting people to judge me by my fruit. It’s not a new experience for published writers, but it’s a new one for me. It’s one thing to share some of my writing with friends when I think they will find it interesting for reasons of their own, but it’s another to say: If you want to understand where I’m coming from, go read that stuff. The fruit is over there. Watch out for wasps.

How arrogant it might seem, even though I feel the opposite way.

But how effective!

Really, can you imagine? If someone is going to be turned off by some of my quirks, the collection of essays on this site should accomplish it nicely. By the same token, if an old friend or acquaintance sees something in me they identify with or want more of, they are certain to find it represented somewhere in these stories.

But…What if they think it’s all stupid?
What if they write me off as a recovery nut and nothing else?
What if they think I’m too crazy to trust with any place in their life?
What if it makes no impression on them at all, positive or negative?

Then that’s what it is. It’s no different from what we all face every time we interact with another person. With every word and action, we place our head upon the metaphorical block and risk the falling of the ax.

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.