Sunday, November 30, 2014

Complicated Gratitude: These little lights of mine

This is not your grateful, happy, holiday post.  If you’re looking for inspiration, for something to make you feel good, for something to make your family seem a little less crazy, or for a piece of writing that will make you step back and say “wow,” this is not the post for you.  There are plenty of those sorts of posts out there this time of year, and plenty of real bloggers able to set aside their hurt or frustration or anger or pain to write something inspirational that will make you feel jolly.  If you look, you can find post after blessed post designed to bring awareness to the fact that there are people in the world who are REALLY hurting, and you’re not one of them.  There are tons of folks wiser than myself who are able to bring it all home and give you warm tinglies as you read their magical wisdom-filled words of love and gratitude and blessings.   
But here’s what I’ve got today instead: I am really struggling with gratitude.  I am tired.  My heart hurts.  My fight drive is moving steadily in the direction of flight, and everything in me just wants to curl up with a big fuzzy blanket and sleep.  Animals have it right, you know?  Hibernation should totally be a thing. 
I’ve talked myself through this before.  I’ve talked myself through this gratitude struggle before, and I have come out on the other side.  I can tell you with complete sincerity and certainty that I am exceptionally blessed.  I am grateful for family and health and friends and pets and love and all those things we all pull out this time of year when we sit around the Thanksgiving table or post on Facebook.  It’s not that those things aren’t real, or wonderful and meaningful, or that they don’t matter… because of course they do.  Of course it’s important that we express gratitude for them, even if it’s just once a year, and even if that gratitude occurs around the mumbled curses, sighs, and eye rolls that inevitably happen when family gathers together.  There is meaning in ritual.  There is meaning in finding those moments of gratitude.  There is meaning in the gathering, and in the cursing, and in the eye rolls.  There must be.  Why else would we continue to do it?
But here’s the thing: even as I can say that I am grateful for all those things, and even as I feel that gratitude, I’m not really feeling it.  I am paying lip service to gratitude, and that actually feels kinda shitty, you know?  I believe there can be a certain power in going through the motions.  Making statements of gratitude, even when I don’t feel them, has been important for me in the past.  Finding the tiny pieces – the little twinkle lights of gratitude – that was a challenge I lived and loved for a few years.

But much like the twinkle lights on the Christmas trees, there are times when the whole damn string goes out for no apparent reason.  One tiny little bulb in that whole long string of lights decides it’s going to crap out, and BAM.  No more twinkle lights.  Sure, you can push and squeeze and twist every damn twinkle light on that string, but it’s done, and pretty soon you find yourself in line at Wal-Mart with the hordes of other people buying twinkle lights, all desperate to purchase something that will light up the darkness. 

Because that’s what we’re doing, isn’t it?  We’re all searching for something that will light up the dark that extends around us as far as we can see.  Aren’t we all hungry for those little things that will light the way?  Aren’t we all always searching for those little beacons of hope?  Perhaps that’s all gratitude is – a way of desperately hanging on to twinkle lights, attempting to convince ourselves that if we stare at them long enough, they might be something more.  If you’ve ever spent time looking at a Christmas tree, you know that you can stare at the lights in such a way that they grow into large balls of light before your eyes – and you also know that it’s still that tiny little bulb, hanging to a string that is so interconnected to the other lights that if one goes out – they all go out together. 

I guess the thing is that I feel beat up by the world.  I’ve tried all the positive reframes I can manage, and the truth of the matter is still this: today, I feel beat up.  I’m tired, and my heart just hurts, and I’m NOT grateful.  If I’m honest, the truth of the matter is that I feel like the defective twinkle light.  I feel like I am the twinkle light on that string of twinkles that is about to have twinkled its last twink.  I feel like I’m about to be the one that kills the whole chain of lights – because something must have happened to that one light, right?  That one light was the one that got tired.  That one light was the one that got stepped on.  That one light was the one that hit the ground first when the cat ripped the lights out of the tree, or the one that was just a little defective from the start, or the one that’s positioned unfortunately, such that it gets knocked again and again until the thing finally just craps out.  Who can blame it?

For the past few years, I’ve felt like the lone twinkle light.  There’s not much to be done with a single twinkle light, and I don’t know that anyone would purchase a solo twinkle, honestly…but that was what I thought I needed.  For a time, I think it was what I needed.  I’m learning that this doesn’t work forever.
I’m not sure why it happened, or how it happened, or how the mechanics or the electrical wiring of this worked, but I suddenly find myself on a big string – an ever-expanding string – of twinkle lights.  Sometime a few months ago, I found myself in the middle of these beautiful lights.  Not on the end.  Not barely hanging on somewhere.  Smack in the middle, connected just as strongly as all the rest to the next light, and the next light, and to all of those lights down the string.

I know that this is where I should say, “…and I’m really really grateful for this, and it’s awesome and amazing.”

And I am grateful, in a way that transcends the word grateful.  And it is awesome, and it is amazing.  Truly.  In every sense of every one of those adjectives.  Every time I feel my light dwindling, someone along that chain sends a little extra twinkle down that string of lights, and I somehow stay lit.  Every single time I feel like I’m going to burn out, there’s this little boost from someone on that string, and I keep burning.

And I also hate it, because being part of that chain means trusting.  It means believing those lights aren’t going to suddenly decide that my piece of the chain isn’t worth the energy.  It means believing that my light and energy can support the light and energy of others, and that it will be accepted and valued.  It means that I have to allow others to support my energy, when I would much rather just do it myself (even as I acknowledge that I can’t).  It means I feel guilt, and shame, and frustration, and vulnerability and weakness alongside hope and love and joy and excitement and gratitude, because trust for me right now means all of those things.  It just does. 

Being part of this chain of beautiful twinkling means that I need to believe that I am worth the energy and light being shared with me along that string, and that, perhaps, is the hardest thing at the root of it all.  Believing that others want or value my light…that they want me to be part of this string of light…that’s hard, and it’s tiring.  My heart hurts as it tries to believe that I’m worthy, and as it tries to understand why I’m worthy, and as it tries to believe that I am worthy of both giving and receiving the light.   This chain is powered by a love I don’t understand that, quite frankly and irrationally, stresses me out.  It’s hard to articulate gratitude for something you are given that you can’t convince yourself you deserve, and that you feel sure is going to be taken from you as suddenly as it was given.  It’s hard to express gratitude for something you so desperately need and want, and feel so extremely fortunate to find…when you also feel as though it will be taken from you at any possible moment.  I know as absolute fact that I could wake up tomorrow and have been not only cut out of the string, but also smashed into a million non-twinkling pieces on the ground.  I know as absolute fact that I could put myself back together from that.  I know as absolute fact that I don’t want to. 

So here is what I’m doing: I’m holding off on the expressions of gratitude.  I’m acknowledging that I am cautiously grateful, and that I am scared of this gratitude, because gratitude means attachment and trust, and I am scared to allow myself either.  I’m allowing myself to withhold the trust and belief, because that’s what my heart needs if this is going to ever work at all.  I'm accepting that, right now, everything is complicated -- even gratitude.  I am grateful, and hurting, and working so hard to reach a place of peace. 

So I’m going to sit back, and let those lights twinkle, and I’m going to work like hell to believe that I have a light worth burning alongside them. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Why Poetry Matters

I have had a weekend full of poetry.  I know that I have written time and time and time again about poetry and writing and words and their power.  I have quoted Audre Lorde more times than I can count: "Poetry is not a luxury," she says.  "It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change... Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought...  And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it.  Poetry is not only dream or vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives."

Lately, when I find myself talking about poetry (which is often), and when I find myself talking about my poetry in particular, I end up on the edge of an emotion I do not know how to name.  I feel my body filled up and bursting with an energy and a love and a power that I can't explain without my voice shaking.  My eyes sting and there is a lump in the base of my throat as I try to speak truth to this meaning, this emotion, this living thing that poetry is inside of me...and I can't, because it is too much.  It's too big.  It's too full and rich and powerful, and the only way I know how to write that is in poetry...but as of yet, a poem about the power of poetry has been a little too meta for my finite mind to grasp.

The sermon at church today was titled "Poetry Matters."  It was a moving service full of poetry and music, and why poetry matters in our world.  I came away from it, eyes stinging as I questioned why poetry matters for me.  Why is it that this -- this thing that is no more than letters strung together to form sounds that form words that form phrases and stanzas -- why is it that this is the thing that brings me home?  Why is this the thing, again and again, that saves me?  Why this?  Why not running, or travelling, or knitting, or roller derby?  What is it about this, about poetry, that makes me feel whole?

People say, "well, clearly it's because you're a good writer.  Clearly it's because you have a gift for writing."  And, sure, compliments feel nice and stroke my ego a bit, particularly as I know I can't judge my level of "good" or my level of "gift."  It's taken me 10 years to be able to say comfortably that I'm a writer - I'm a person who writes, sure, but feeling as though I deserved that title of "writer" took time.  I still get nervous when people read my writing.  Pressing "publish" on every blog post is an act of bravery; every comment feels like I'm waiting for criticism of my heart, and I continue to have a small panic attack when people mention reading my blog in person.  No joke.  The momentary look of terror that crosses my face when you say, "I read your last blog post"...that was real.  You didn't imagine it. 

I have always been a writer.  This I know for sure.  My mother transcribed my first poem when I was 3, and I never stopped.  There is some aspect of this that was born into me for reasons I will probably never know, but the necessity of writing...that's been recent.  The way poetry gets into my body and lives there...that's new.  The way I need poetry and words in a way that can't possibly be physiological, but feels as necessary as breathing?  That's been the past few years.  And why?  Why is it that poetry matters this much to me?

Last night, I did something ridiculously brave.  Capital B-Brave, even.  After attending a day long Unitarian Universalist conference on Racial Justice, I participated in a Poetry Slam.  As in, I legit participated.  As in, I actually competed in the damn thing.  I got up, in front of lots of people I didn't know (and two amazing souls I do know - and who I could not and would not have done it without), and I recited my words.  With a jazz band playing behind me.  I'm not even kidding.

I've read my words before -- and I'm terrified every single time -- but it's been in slightly different circumstances.  Never in a competition, first of all.  Never in a situation where presentation as a spoken word piece actually meant something.  Never with a freaking jazz band.  Never in front of that many people, never in front of a mixture I know and people I don't, never with a slew of other kickass poets.  Never without thinking about it for a LONG TIME and preparing SUPER HARD beforehand. 

And then when I was chosen as one of two winners to enter the "second round," I had to write a poem in 5 minutes to read aloud in front of everyone.  No time for perfection, for rehearsal, or questioning, for self-doubt, for "you're not good enough," for "you can't do this."  Just time to write it, to be nervous, to read it, and to let it go.  I got second place (and $50), if you're wondering.  But honestly, winning had nothing to do with it.  I'm not just being humble here -- winning really had nothing to do with it, and when I've told people about the experience today, winning second place just didn't even feel like a relevant detail.  

The important piece was bravery.  The important piece was truth -- my truth -- being spoken, by me, aloud, to a room of people.  The important piece was being heard.  The important piece was trusting myself and the world enough to believe that could happen.  The important piece is feeling like a total badass.  The important piece is this felt sense of mattering.  It is power.  It is feeling like I can create something from my mind and my heart - that I so often label as broken - and have it be a thing of power.  It is the knowledge that in those 4 minutes I was on that stage, I created something powerful that changed me and the little world around me.  It's not a big change - I'm not saving the world.  But something happened in that room that was purposeful, that was deliberate, that was beautiful and powerful.  It mattered.   I created something from my broken self, and it mattered.

One of the after effects of trauma is a distinct feeling of powerlessness.  After I was sexually assaulted, I felt a huge loss of power...which was followed by a year of feeling unable to regain that power, unable to access help, and unable to advocate for myself and my needs, as hard as I tried, due to the multiple screwed-up systems that kept the crazy in place.  When you speak and aren't heard, and you are blamed, and shamed, and silenced for so long, you internalize it.  You just do.  As hard as you try not to, you are vulnerable, and you learn that you are broken.  That you don't matter.  That you cannot effect change on your world.

The night I was sexually assaulted, I heard these words: "You know what your problem is?  You don't have any confidence.  No one will ever love you if you don't get some confidence.  Now give me 150%." 

The night I was sexually assaulted, I heard these words: "Know what your problem is?  You.  You're fucking unlovable."

You internalize that.  You just do.  As hard as you try not to, that shit seeps into your pores and tries to live there.  I've been trying to wash it off, but it's been four years and I'm still not clean.

 A few months after my life fell apart, I started writing with a ferocity and a necessity I didn't know existed within me.  Gone were my nice poems of hope and love and goodwill toward were the poems with stanzas like:

...[he] went beyond my mind to the
spiritual realm I thought was
just mine.
He curled up in there
hissing in happiness
like some
perverted kitten.


If I told you poetry is
womanhood being about sisterhood and
kisses being about moonlight, passion, bliss,
would you think I had found
the real poem?
Would you think I had unleashed
the poet in me? Because
that’s not poetry dude, that’s

These poems have not been read by others, and yet they saved me.  On my bad days, I can look back at my chronology of poems from 2010 to 2014, and I can see my growth.  I can see my grief, I can see the shame, and the self-doubt, and the place my hope bottomed out.  It is, actually, a way of seeing the "skeleton architecture" of my life. 

Looking back at my writing, though, what I see most is my strength.  In my good moments, I see the ways I wrote myself out of the darkness again, and again, and again.  I see power.  When I write my truth, when I write my heart, I feel power.  As my world crumbled around me, I wrote these words:

Poetry is knowing when
all else is gone and I
am a shaking mess of broken worth and
frozen dignity, I am still
my words
and you
will never
silence me.

My words are the place my power lives.  Poetry is the thing that holds me together and tears me apart.  It is the place where I am in control to write myself whole and write myself broken.  With my words, I can "give name to the nameless so it can be thought."  I can write confidence.  I can write loveable.  I can write vulnerability, and ugly, and unworthy.  Through my words, I can be both, feel both, create both within me.  On paper, I have the power to erase unloveable.  Erase broken.  I have the power to be, and create, and tell all of the confusing truths I am living without them being questioned.  I can write all of my contradicting truths, and not one of them will become a lie.  This is necessity.  It is power.  It is the only way I know to hold myself in a container of worth and mattering.  It is, perhaps, the best way I know to practice loving myself again.

By sharing myself whole and sharing myself broken with my little corner of the world, I am reclaiming my voice and power.  I am reminding myself and the world that I am worth hearing, worth valuing, worth remembering.  By letting myself enter and embody my words last night, I became living proof that I am still here, still powerful.  When I share a poem with you, I am handing you my heart to hold.  I am trusting that you won't drop it, or squash it, or throw it away.  By reading a poem aloud, I am stripping myself bare before you, willing to claim that I am worthy, full of voice, and alive.  When we claim ourselves in that way, there is no way we will not be changed.  There is no way we are not changing our world.  There is no way that poetry can not matter. 

"Poetry is not a luxury."  It is power.  It is reclamation.  It is the necessity of embracing and embodying all the pieces of my worth I can muster to claim over and again as truth that I am still here, living and powerful in my words.  It is the proof that, in spite of it all, I am still speaking, and no one will ever silence me.