Inspiration during Social Isolation

Everyone is staying inside here in Washington, as in many other places around the world. Whether you like it or not, we’ve all been forced to slow down in one way or another. Perhaps this is an opportunity to go inward and become reflective. I’ve been wanting to write a poem, but for *some reason* I can’t get the words right. I’ve made my peace with this. Now’s not the time to be judgmental or harsh. It’s a good time to step back and let go.

So instead, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a very beautiful poem by Mary Oliver called “At Loxahatchie” (from her book Dream Work). What can you loosen your grip on today?

the water whispered: And now, like us,
you are a million years old.

But at the same time
the enormous and waxy flowers

of the shrubs around me, whose names
I did not know,
were nodding in the wind and sighing
Be born! And I knew

whatever my place in this garden
it was not to be what I had always been–
the gardener.
Everywhere the reptiles thrashed

while birds exploded into heavenly
hymns of rough song and the vultures
drifted like black angels and clearly nothing
needed to be saved.

I’m a Fraud

Far and away, the most important thing I learned in law school had very little to do with law. In a career-development seminar, my then-professor said:

“You must come to terms with feeling like a fraud. Every lawyer is a fraud.”

He wasn’t casting aspersions on the practice of law; he was talking about how no single person can ever hope to know everything about the law. It’s too voluminous, too complicated. And it’s always changing. Obviously, this advice doesn’t just apply to lawyers. In life, there’s so much you don’t know, and can’t know. This holds true for any given profession or any undertaking you might pursue.

Let me tell you, nothing makes you feel more fraudulent than being a self-employed writer. You might be thinking, “What am I doing? I don’t deserve this! I don’t even have a job description! Where’s my cubicle, anyway. . .?”

Cocktail parties become more difficult. Casual conversations become interrogations. My friends from law school, distant relatives – they all want to know: “how’s business?” It can be hard to stand tall in that environment, to resist the urge to make excuses or minimize what you do. It’s tempting to just crawl under the table with a bowl of pretzels and admit defeat. There’s a lot of pressure to perform, and if you’re self-employed, there’s a lot of pressure (mostly internal) to explain yourself. What makes you so different? Why do you deserve this? What do you know that I don’t?

There’s a cult of secrecy around this: Don’t let anyone in on the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing. They’ll expose you. They will let everyone in on the fact that you don’t deserve your success. They’ll tell everyone the truth: it was just a fluke. You just got lucky. Fortunately, it’s not true.

As with many things, you’ll find that there are less people out to get you than you think. I’m not saying they don’t exist- but usually we’re our own worst enemy. Instead of everyone thinking about what a phony you are, they are inside their own minds hoping that you aren’t noticing how fake they are.

You don’t need to fake it.
Embrace the fraud in you. Own what you don’t know. Take responsibility for it; it’s okay if you don’t know everything. Start being honest with yourself first. Life itself is uncertainty, and there’s no shame in that.

Note that this doesn’t translate to “have low self-esteem.” You can still have self-confidence, even when you don’t know what you’re doing! (And if you’re an existentialist, how does anyone really know anything, anyway?) Instead of focusing on proving to others you aren’t a fraud, practice self-awareness. Embrace what you don’t know, embrace the uncertainty in life, embrace the fact that we all only get one chance at life and one go-round will not make you an expert. Once you start to honestly examine your feelings of insecurity—once you recognize those things about you that are fraudulent—I guarantee you will find something genuine beneath it.

This is your core. This is you. It is the realest, most authentic thing there is.

Poetry of Childhood

I’ve been practicing my poetry lately, and I’ve been having a hard time coming up with anything that sticks. So, I’ve resorted to my old book of poetry exercises, The Practice of Poetry. This particular exercise asks you to write about a memory from childhood–one that is not often thought about but maybe has some recent significance to you. Pay particular attention to how you use tense, how you cope with the passage of time as it effects your understanding of the past event.

Here’s what I came up with:

Lost in the woods

We found ourselves finally
at the side of a road,
the crossroads between
camp and wilderness.

The sun bent towards setting,
reflecting the blues in everything:
blue the mountains, menacing
blue the feral eyes, darting
blue the lone car passing,
then gone. Then silence.
There was no one looking for us but
we came back anyway

sometimes we still hide in trees
hoard our tears like sapphires

Dark Night of the Soul

Sometimes our fears, our grief, our betrayals are a blessing in disguise. They can be transformative. If we are willing, this dark night of the soul can teach us about our true nature. When we find that we don’t know who we are anymore, that we are so lost in the darkness, we can loosen our grip on our small identities, the impermanent and superficial things that we often take as representative of the whole of us. We can finally glimpse ourselves as a part of something greater.

Pushing Through

It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock

in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;

I am such a long way in I see no way through,

and no space: everything is close to my face,

and everything close to my face is stone.

I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief

so this massive darkness makes me small.

You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:

then your great transforming will happen to me,

and my great grief cry will happen to you.

Rainier Marie Rilke, Translated by Robert Bly

Don’t be afraid, even though you will be afraid. This dark night is a gift.

An Old Poem about Erosion and Memory

This is an old poem I wrote that appears in revised form in the Blanket Stories anthology by Ragged Sky Press. It’s inspired by a place I went as a kid, Washaway Beach, Washington.

Washaway

I remember
I've been here before.

On a family vacation
I saw the beach washed away.
We couldn’t drive further.
The highway dove straight into the Pacific,
pavement disappearing under waves.
Chunks of grey concrete,
crumble in the murky surf.

We terrified onlookers witnessed the
broken homes and scattered possessions,
worn-out and weather-beaten.
An empty bathtub, a lifeless bassinet
cradling its driftwood cadaver.
Corroded plumbing stuck out of the sand
like grasping, skinless fingers
pointing desperately towards heaven.

I was ten years old when I saw
those seconds swallowed up.
My home is nothing but a ghost town,
filled with sand. The silent spirits:
those I never really knew,
those who hunted me.
Their death-scent followed me here
as vultures surround me like a halo.

I sit on the shore, the water
darts around my ankles, a new, live birth.
All these grains of sand— uncountable and unaccounted for—
memories I want so desperately to forget,
secrets I know I can no longer keep.
Scatter the remains across the ocean. Walk away.
We will never speak of it again.

Joyful Loneliness

Anything that we fully do is an alone journey. No matter how happy your friends may be for you, how much they support you, you can’t expect anyone to match the intensity of your emotions or to completely understand what you went through. This is not sour grapes. You are alone when you write a book. Accept that and take in any love and support that is given to you, but don’t have expectations of how it is supposed to be.

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, p. 170.

People frequently mention the importance of community for writers: writing critique groups, conferences, social media connections. Writing is necessarily a solitary act, and community can be a valuable antidote for despair and self-absorption–neither of which are conducive to good writing.

Community is important. But so is the solitude. Being alone is not only necessary for writers, it can be comforting.

There’s a particular kind of joy in being alone. There’s freedom. An expansiveness. A wholeness, even. Only you can completely know yourself, the sheer totality of your existence, all the bits and pieces that comprise you. This deeply rooted authenticity is a sort of sanctuary. When alone, you can exist in a place without masks. Beyond the anxiety and the loneliness there is something liberating and protective:

I have found both freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.

Kahlil Gibran, The Madman

That is one of my all-time favorite quotes. I always want to be understood, more than I think I want almost anything else in the world. I suppose that’s why I write too. And yet, in my ongoing struggle to be understood, I sometimes lose my perspective. I lose myself. Maybe I don’t have to strive to be understood, maybe if I found acceptance in the way things are, I might feel my throat open up. My words might feel lighter, more natural. And I would be closer to saying exactly what I need to say.