Sunday, June 1, 2014

How do I be this person I am?

I can't really say that I have a favorite poem, simply because there are too many amazing poems to have just one.  I'd say, though, that if I were to create an anthology of my favorite poems, this one by Lucille Clifton would definitely be included:
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
 What a gorgeous piece of poetry, right? 
I've been thinking about this poem a good bit lately, particularly that question she asks in the middle: "what did i see to be except myself?"  In some ways, I think I have been asking myself the same question. 
My life feels on the cusp of big transitions in so many ways.  Starting in September, I will, for the first time in my life, no longer be a trainee or a student.  I'll also be teaching a college course that is 100% my own...which I have sorta done before...but this is different.  In the past several months, I have grown and changed tremendously.  I am feeling strong and connected, and I feel drawn to speak and act on issues I care about.  I am sharing writing I was previously too embarrassed and scared to share, and I feel I am more "me" than I have ever been.  There are big things happening in and around me, and I am incredibly grateful. 
Even as it is wonderful, though, it is also a little frightening.  And it's confusing, sometimes.  And honestly, it's just a lot to figure out.  To tell the truth, it's also a little...lonely isn't quite the right word, but it's the closest word I know.  A little weighty, perhaps, to feel like I am forging a new path alone.  It's not that I don't have the right tools -- I do.  (*Pause, as I search for the right metaphor here....*)
 (*Right, got it.  Press 'play'*).  It feels like this: I've been on a deserted island for a long, long time.  For a long time, I didn't have the tools I needed to make an effective trip back to the mainland.  I thought I was making progress, thought I was going somewhere when, in reality, I just kept circling the damn island over, and over, and over again.  I found enough to keep me alive, and for a while, that was enough.  Just circling the island was all I could handle...but then, I needed more, and I started making my way back to the mainland.  One by one, I found the tools I needed.  One by one, I found people along the way who walked with me, or gave me a ride in their car or their helicopter or hovercraft or boat before dropping me off at the next point I needed to walk from.  Without them, I could not have made it to this point.  There is so much gratitude here. 
But now, I'm back on the mainland and I'm reintegrating into society.  It's not that we have a Romulus and Remus situation going on...I'm no feral child.  But as I continue re-joining society, I am different than I was before.  I have different knowledge and understanding, different things I need to say, different passions and likes and dislikes and comforts and discomforts. 
 Mostly, though, I find myself hungry for someone who has walked this path.  I'm hungry and wanting someone who knows this journey.  This path that I forged alone -- I am proud for having done so.  I look back now at the blisters from having carved this journey with my own two hands, and I can touch them with a certain gentleness and understanding I hadn't previously been able to reach. 
 But now, I want to be able to look forward to someone who came before me, who can show me that the rocky path is an option, but there is also an easier way.  I want someone who has been where I was to truly understand, in all the ways I understand, exactly what it has meant for me to get to this place.  My soul is hungry for someone to answer the question that is burning in my heart and my mind and my skin: how do I be this person I am becoming?
 I have always been very clear on where I am going and what I am doing.  I mean, when I was 11, I decided that I wanted to teach a dance class to homeschoolers at our homeschooling co-op, and damn if I didn't check books out of the library on teaching creative movement to preschoolers, write out a schedule, lug my Fisher-Price record player into the church, and teach dance after lunch.  Being one of the "first" teenagers in our homeschooling community, I made the road for others to follow. 
 By the time I got to college at 17, this was just how I worked.  Want to graduate in 3 years?  Done. I didn't just volunteer, I was the site coordinator for the volunteer job.  Difficulties with transportation?  No big deal...I just took the drive-the-van safety course so I could drive the 16-passenger van through Baltimore City to the elementary school where we worked at the afterschool program.  Sure, I looked up to the upper-level students, but really, I didn't need models.  I saw the path clearly, and where there wasn't a path...well...I would just make my own.  No big deal.  It's what I had always done.
 In grad school, your steps are slightly locked in as you progress through the program, and I made of those steps what I needed.  For the first part of grad school, I had some mentors that I sincerely looked up to and respected.  I desired to be like them, and learned from their experience and their expertise.  I had thought-provoking discussions with them, and I wanted to emulate them in certain ways.  I took bits and pieces of them, and tried to shape those pieces into a form that most closely represented the type of clinician, researcher, and person I wanted to be.
 And then everything fell apart and, in the scheme of things falling apart, I lost my mentors.  Through no fault of my own, I lost their support.  For the last year and a half I was there, I pretty much felt that I was on my own.  Good thing I had that history of figuring it all out, right?  I tried to tell myself that it was no big deal, and that I could make my own path -- and I did, because I'm good at that, because I've been doing it all my life.
 Now, I have people around me that I respect and trust at work...but I respect them as professionals...but I wouldn't necessarily call them mentors.  We talk work stuff, and we agree and we disagree, and they are wonderful colleagues with experience I can learn from.  But we are just very, very, VERY different in terms of our personal lives.  In terms of this "how do I be this person I'm becoming" question, they aren't the models I'm looking for. 
 My professional life is, clearly, important, but my personal life, and my writing, and my need for activism are also incredibly important pieces of who I am right now.  And the intersection of those pieces?  Whew--that just makes life even more confusing.  It's beautiful, and stressful sometimes, and confusing sometimes, too.  As Lucille Clifton writes, I feel I am standing, "my one hand holding tight / my other hand."
 For the first time in a long time, I like this person I am becoming.  But truth be told, I'm also scared of her.  This person that is blossoming from me is strong.  She's afraid of speaking and using her voice, and she does it anyway.  She writes and she shares her writing.  She is learning to wear her body without shame, and she allows herself to love and to be loved.  This person that I am becoming can feel and channel anger appropriately.  She's passionate.  She's willing to start to believe that she's worthy.  She's connected and connecting, and she knows how fucking hard she had to work to get to this place.  Indeed: "come celebrate/ with me that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed."
 But how does she do it?  How does this person I'm learning to be learn how to navigate these changes?  How does she balance her work, and her activism, and her writing and her passions and her need for quiet and stillness?  After all, "what did i see to be except myself? / i made it up."  What DID I see to be?  I don't know.  I made it up.  I did.  I have always been clear on where I needed to get to...and now I'm here.  How do I be this person now?  
 Perhaps this is what we all do, no?  Perhaps we are all, each of us, our own mentors and mothers and models.  Perhaps this process of "growing up," whatever that means, involves us all just making it up, and learning from ourselves. 
 But is it wrong to want, sometimes, to look outside yourself to see how other people, who have been in my shoes more or less -- is it wrong to want to see and learn from them?  Is it wrong to reach -- when you're on this cusp of change -- is it wrong to reach out on this bridge "between starshine and clay," and hope you reach someone else's hand, rather than your own? 

How do we -- ANY of us -- become the people that we are as we all make it up together?


  1. I finally read this. I probably shouldn't comment right away, should probably sit with it, but I'm striking while the iron is hot (also, lunch break =) ).

    I am growing to suspect that there exists, simultaneously, no one else in the world quite like we each are AND more people that understand than I could possibly imagine. I had a lot of expectations about who I was going to be that I simply accepted without trying them on. Then they didn't fit. Then I had to take them apart. I had the blessed freedom to destroy them myself, they were mostly not destroyed for me - though they were imperfectly created. And now I have to figure out, yeah, how to be.

    I don't know how you do it. But I know you're already doing it. =)

  2. You're a bad-ass beast. You're just coming back to yourself. Leadership is lonely, even if you're a natural leader. You've put it out there. Hold out your hand and somebody will take it. Watch and see.