Blessings and Curses

Sometimes the things we cling to don’t serve us. Or, perhaps, it is the act of clinging itself that hurts us. Either way, when we lose those things we cling to (as in when we relinquish them or even when we have no choice) we might reveal a hidden blessing. Of course, every blessing has a downside too. Just as there are two sides to a coin, there is duality in both our blessings and our curses. The true test is to find peace in both.

You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen, — the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives, — I ran maskless through the crowded streets shouting, “Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves.”

Men and women laughed at me and some ran to their houses in fear of me.

And when I reached the market place, a youth standing on a house-top cried, “He is a madman.” I looked up to behold him; the sun kissed my own naked face for the first time. For the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted my masks no more. And as if in a trance I cried, “Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks.”

Thus I became a madman.

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

But let me not be too proud of my safety. Even a Thief in a jail is safe from another thief.

Kahlil Gibran, The Madman

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.

Shame, Secrecy, and Trichotillomania

I’ve never liked my hair.

I was about eleven when I started pulling my hair out. I remember doing this at the school library, sitting at a table alone reading a book and compulsively pulling out my hair, strand by strand. Sometimes I would take a strand and pull it through my clenched teeth, like a vegetable grater, until the strand snapped under the tension.  Or I would take the black, sticky follicle and tear it apart with my nails. When I would do this I was in my own little world. It was like a trance: I was oblivious to the piles of hair I would leave on the tables and floors around me. The strands people were always pulling off my clothing. It wasn’t until my grandmother, visiting from out of town, started picking at the thick layer of hair surrounding where I sat on our living room couch that it even registered to me that this was a noticeable thing to others. She looked disturbed as she asked me, “where did all this hair come from?” I said I guessed i was just shedding, and laughed–as if that was some sort of joke that explained it all. For whatever reason, she didn’t push it and after that, I started cleaning up after myself better. That bought me some time, but soon I developed a large bald spot in the back of my head from where I would pull out the most hair. I couldn’t see it looking at my reflection in a mirror, I only noticed it after kids in gym class started pointing it out. I could feel it when I reached my hand to the back of my scalp. It was about the size of my fist, completely devoid of hair. One of my classmates started calling me Friar Tuck–I guess that’s what it looked liked.

Finally, my mom asked me what happened–my teacher had mentioned it to her. I lied the best way I knew how: I blamed it on my little brother, who was probably two at the time. I said he pulled the whole chunk straight out. The lie was unbelievable even to me, the bald expanse on my head was too big, and my hair was thinned in other places as well. My eyelids had swollen because I would pick the lashes out, and my eyebrows were uneven for the same reason. But, the lie did its job. After that, I promised myself I would stop pulling out my hair, and I did stop. In a perverse way, it wasn’t even that hard–the deep degree of shame and embarrassment at my public self-disfiguration were powerful enough. Eventually, mercifully, my hair grew back, although it’s always been more unmanageable, as if it grew thicker and more obstinate in response.

I learned later that year that this behavior has a name: trichotillomania. It’s an impulse control disorder often appearing alongside depression, anxiety, and OCD. As a kid, I was comforted to learn my behavior had a name, that other people experienced the same thing. That context helped alleviate some of the shame and disgust I felt. But some things still lingered, things that continue to bother me to this day: why didn’t anyone help me? Why didn’t they see past my secrecy and unbelievable lies? Back then, I assumed that it was because of me. I thought there was something deeply, inherently wrong with me and I carried that notion around for far too long. It ballooned into the depression of my adolescence, the reckless anxiety of my twenties.

It’s significant to me that I developed trichotillomania right around the time I started puberty. It seems like a no-brainer that the increase in anxiety that comes along with being newly minted and fixed in the male gaze could manifest in compulsive bodily mutilation, especially in regards to hair, which is culturally associated with sexuality and beauty. It inadvertently turns that dynamic on its head: Hair can also be a shield. It can be a deterrent.

How to Be an Antiracist

I just read How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s an insightful book that defines and catalogs racist and antiracist thought in clear and unwavering terms.

One of the most tangible things I took from this book was a renewed desire to examine my own life and what I believe in. Early on, Kendi makes it very clear that there is a big different between being “not a racist” and being “antiracist”:

” ‘Not racist’ signifies neutrality. But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle…one either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.”

How to Be an Antiracist, p. 9

For years, I’ve taken some comfort in the fact that I am not a racist. I don’t believe in a racial hierarchy and I recognize privilege that I have as a white person in America. However, this attitude has been a shield that I’ve worn around myself to avoid venturing out into uncomfortable territory. It’s stopped me from doing more, from thinking more about the existing power structures at play around me. Safe in being “not racist,” I had inadvertently absolved myself from the racism all around me.

One example: Years ago, I was offered admission to Temple Law, in Philadelphia, a city I wasn’t (and still am not!) very familiar with. I hadn’t ever been to the campus. I don’t remember why I applied there, but there was some reason. After I was accepted, my dad told me that a colleague of his, originally from Philly, was adamant that I shouldn’t go to school there because it was located in a really rough, high-crime neighborhood. (Read: low-income, Black).

Guess what? I didn’t go there. I didn’t even look into it further. There were a lot of factors at play in the decision, but I can’t deny that fear was one of them. And it’s pretty ridiculous because I never looked into it, I never visited the campus. Most of all, I never really even thought twice about it. It’s in a “bad neighborhood?” Well, okay, that’s not for me. That was the beginning and end of my analysis. I never stopped to ask why, what does that mean, exactly? A bad neighborhood, how? Who lives there? What’s really going on? What am I avoiding? I wish I had asked a few more questions. I wish I had looked into it, head on. I wish I could say that I based my decision solely on the merits of the place, on what was truly best for me, not some shot-gun, fear-based approach that was absolutely rooted in racist underpinnings and avoidance. I don’t know that a deeper analysis would have changed where I went to law school, but it might have. At least, it would have made me a more self-aware person.

How many times has this happened in my life? How many times I have chosen the path of avoidance, of denial?

Kendi’s book is a clear call to action. It starts with identifying and labeling racist thoughts and actions, especially our own. This is difficult, as racist thought is so deeply embedded in our culture. How do we overcome our bias? For starters: Read and learn. Listen. Make a commitment to doing better. Confront racism where you see it, in yourself, in your family, in your communities. We all have a responsibility fight racism and to move forward.