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.

The Shame and Secrecy of 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.

Women and Anger: The Psychology of False Bodies

I’m currently reading “Fat Is a Feminist Issue” by Susie Orbach–a wonderful book first published in 1978 that remains tragically relevant today. Orbach talks about how our cultural obsession with obesity and thinness is a mask for more complex psychological phenomena. That is, it’s about more than how much you weigh, instead it’s about what your weight signifies. This is practically common knowledge these days, as people talk about how their food intake (or lack thereof) makes them feel “in control,” or of body image as a way to take up more or less space.

One particularly compelling idea is what Orbach calls the “false body.” This is an extension of David Winnicott’s concept of the “false self.” Winnicott posited that the false self is sometimes developed in early infancy, when a parent (usually the mother) is depressed or otherwise withdrawn from the child and so the infant learns it must cater to the parent if it is to receive attention, care, and safety. The child internalizes the needs of the caretaker and becomes separated from and eventually unable to access its own needs and desires. Growing up they might feel this sense of emptiness that they can’t place. It’s a mask you might wear, but remain completely unaware that you’re wearing it.

Orbach says that this happens, not just with the mind, but also with the body. A woman might internalize a false body image that is based on external expectations. The practical result being a separation from the body, an inability to feel and live in the body authentically. The false body is a barrier that disconnections us from our feelings and our true sense of self.

Image by ernie from Pixabay

Of course, this is all bound up in cultural attitudes towards women. We are taught to take up less space, physically and emotionally. We repress or channel our emotions into societally acceptable venues, maybe we re-direct it at ourselves. In particular this line about women and anger struck me: “When we rebel or show dissatisfaction, we learn we are nasty and greedy. ” To be dissatisfied as a women is to be selfish. And to be selfish is almost anti-woman, isn’t it? It’s antithetical from the nurturing, other-focused mother, wife, community member. Whenever a man calls me selfish, it sounds like a slur. It sounds condemning, unnatural, disgusting. It’s meant to put you in your place. It’s meant to secure your compliance.

Culturally, we don’t handle angry women very well. To be angry as a woman is to be bitchy or shrewish or nagging. Women are shamed out of their anger, talked out of it, bullied out of it. To be angry as a woman is to be unattractive. So what do we do with the repressed anger? We take it out on ourselves and our bodies–through the violence of extreme diets, through outright starvation, through the “selfless” focus on others at the expense of our well-being.

Today, do the opposite of what you’ve been told. Express your anger. Take up space. Be selfish.

11 Rules for Writing

Inspired by the Art and Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall.

  1. Write every day, no matter what. When you don’t write, write the next day.
  2. Fill your life with inspiration, and know that everything is inspiration. Keep it close to you.
  3. Write with bravery and confidence (write what you want and how you want). Don’t stop for anyone.
  4. Write happily, even though writing is work, it is also joyful. Work with pleasure only.
  5. Have a space set aside for writing, but don’t be bound to it. Writing is everywhere.
  6. Write the Truth, not the facts. Authenticity is everything.
  7. Be precise.
  8. Finish one story before beginning another. But horde story ideas like gold.
  9. Don’t be afraid of anything, nothing is off limits. Don’t censor, but do write spaciously, leaving room for symbolism and metaphor.
  10. Relaxing is invaluable. Use your unconscious mind, do things that appear mindless to find solutions when stuck.
  11. Don’t focus on finishing, just take it one day at a time. That’s how work gets finished.

Female Bodies

In my last post, I talked about dissociation and my own fraught relationship with my body. This post is related; it’s about why being in a body, especially a female body, is so challenging. Though this is not an exclusively female experience, it’s absolutely gendered. Being a woman means having a body that is always on display. Always commented on. Public property. And it starts at birth. I have a three-year-old daughter, and nearly every time we go out some well-meaning stranger compliments her appearance. Gushes: She’s so cute! I love her hair! What a darling smile! It’s an ingrained cultural response, but I can’t imagine that it isn’t racking up in her brain already, an ongoing tally, this cultural fixation on appearance. And what happens when those compliments stop coming so easily? When the compliments come laced with layers of expectation? Will she turn on herself? Will she feel somehow not enough, somehow lacking?

I’ve never had an eating disorder, but I’ve known many, many women that have. Still more women suffer from disordered eating stemming from a poor body image. I’m in this latter category. I am angry about the amount of time I’ve spent feeling bad about the way I look. It feels nearly impossible not to feel this way. Is feeling comfortable in one’s skin is more the exception than the rule?

When I grew up, my mom was always, always on a diet. I think diet culture is especially insidious because it masquerades as “health.” I can’t speak for other people, but that hasn’t been my experience of dieting. A truly healthy practice would involve compassion instead of self loathing. It would involve understanding instead of punishment. Not just because that is the kindest path, but also because that is the path that promotes lasting lifestyle changes. Most of the diets I’ve experienced seem like attempts to sell desperate people products that promote quick fixes. It’s no consequence that such quick fixes discourage any sort of critical thinking or self reflection. They don’t want you to ask: why am I really unhappy? If people started looking hard at what was triggering their feelings of inadequacy, they’d probably look beyond a supplement for fulfillment.

In the world we live in, it’s hard not to feel inadequate. I have put my body though so much because of these feelings of not being enough. I’ve muted it with drugs and alcohol. Tried to silence it through overwork, through inertia or even violence. I think the first step in recovery is recognizing that the system is rigged. A patriarchal system benefits from women feeling less than, from feeling unattractive, from being separated from their true authentic selves. The second step is compassion. It’s hard to break free of ideas that have followed you around since before you can remember. You will probably feel unattractive sometimes or treat yourself poorly. When you already feel like shit, you might tell yourself horrible, soul-defeating things, things that you’d never say out loud to another human being. It’s okay. It’s hard. Eventually you can return to a place of acceptance, welcome yourself back to yourself. Every time you do, it will be that much easier to come back the next time.