Sunday, December 28, 2014

A love letter from the bell to the air

I shared this poem this morning at church, along with the little mini-reflection before it.  I've been asked to post it here it is (with names taken out for anonymity).  The service was about bells, and the prompt I received was "write something about bells."  This is what I got.

The challenge in writing about bells, I discovered, is that I have more to say about what comes after the sound than I do about the physical bell or about the sound itself.   The magic, for me, is in that wonderful moment that comes after the ring: the quiet that fills the space slowly as the ringing fades away.  The way the air seems to clear for whatever may come next. The stillness that fills the space in the clearing.  We hear it every week when our ministers ring the bell that prepares us to worship.  Have you ever really let yourself be carried into that quiet moment that follows the ringing?  Haven't you also felt the excitement, or anticipation, or stillness, or peace, or power of that moment as we settle into our time together?

Sarah Kay, a spoken word poet I admire, has a series of poems that are love letters between inanimate objects -- for example, a love letter between a toothbrush and a bicycle tire.  As I sat, wondering how to write about the moment of stillness following the sound of the bell, this concept - the concept of a love letter - kept coming to mind.  What better way to convey that relationship, I thought.  The relationship between the bell and the air and silence surrounding it -- that has to be a relationship of love.  How else could it make something so beautiful?

I realize this is a little strange.  I realize that there are probably few people who would consider the quality of the relationship between a bell and the air, much less decide to write a poem about it.  But I have learned to take inspiration in any if you'll indulge me, I'll share with you a poem - a love letter, if you will-- between the bell and the air. 

A love letter from the bell to the air

They told me my job was to move through you.
To crash my sides with peals and ringing,
to throw my essence from my edges
cast my sounds upon the wind,
to announce my presence to the quiet spaces,
disrupt the silence by cutting through you and move
as far away as possible.

They said to chime with strength and dignity.
My job was to move, and move, and move,
to the recesses of every space.
To fill all the corners with my presence,
announcing peace, or justice,
or hope, or magic, or angels,
or God, or war as though
I was the only thing that mattered.

But they never mentioned the way you would carry me.
That you would move me as ocean moves sand -
together -
you pull me ever forward.
A vessel of hope and greater promise
you wrap yourself around my solid frame
warm against my vibration
hold my trembling
and carry me through the empty spaces:
a magic carpet bringing pieces of me into
a whole new world.

Who knew the things we would see there?
Who knew what adventures lay before us as we soared
in every direction;
sometimes stopping at an eardrum to be received
as a moment of grace
or meditation, or annoyance
or peace or liberation or warning...
how many purposes we serve.
What meaning we bring together --
me, with my rough and clanging metal, and you
the soft quiet that completes me.
I love that about us.

But my favorite - my favorite is when I ring
and you carry me out and out and out forever and nothing stops us until
I grow faint, and you grow weary,
and together we land, gently,
on the prairie grass
or high atop a mountain
or on rooftops of sleeping people
and we sit there, waiting and silent,
witnessing our aftermath
and the space we create in the empty wholeness that follows.

We look over the peaceful,
or hurting,
or joyous,
or war-torn world and know
this next moment will be different
if only because of what we created:
you carried me
and we held one another
to the very end.


On a 1-10 scale of suck to awesome in terms of quality and style, I'd give this poem a 3.

On a 1-10 scale of suck to awesome in terms of making me feel good for having written it, I'd give it an 8.

That makes it somewhat of a win.

Holidays are hard, you know?  Family is hard sometimes, for many reasons.  Christmas means I see family that I see once a year for Christmas, and also see grandparents -- which is frequently challenging.  For some reason, even though I am 29 years old, the only topic of conversation I can reliably count on is everyone (a) commenting on my how much my sisters and I look alike, (b) analyzing which of our parents each of us look most like; (c) commenting on my clothing and my body.  Growing up with a sister with an eating disorder, I have always been hyper attuned to the body-talk.  Growing up with grandparents that commented on and made suggestions about my clothing, my weight, my acne, and my fingernails (I'm not even kidding), I was always extremely aware and, often, self-conscious.  Even close family friends - it was all they could talk about.  I remember one long conversation with my grandmother's friend who told me I have beautiful ears.  I constantly felt like every part of my body was being scrutinized.  Growing up with a grandfather who often made very inappropriate comments about my changing and growing body, I often felt a sense of shame - although it has taken many years to name these comments for what they were, and to name that feeling as shame.

Regardless, finally, at age 29, I get it.  So when I showed up to Christmas this year, and everyone commented on how much my sisters and I look alike, and which one of my parents I look most like, and commented on my clothing and my body and how good or not-good I look, I. Was. Pissed.  PISSED, I tell you, because I came away feeling like my body was torn apart and judged and picked to pieces.  I felt like the message was that, somehow, other people own my body.  Like this space that I take up is not my own.  As if we don't get that message from everywhere else enough already.

For me, the most powerful line here is this: "this body is not yours to love."  

When you have people commenting on every part of your body from your fingernails to your ears, and expressing judgment about every part of your body, as far back as you can come to evaluate your body, and your attractiveness and worth (because, you know, of course those things are one and the same...*groan*) based on what others tell you.  "Well Bubby likes my hair...and Aunt Betty likes my ears...and Grandmother says I have nice ankles..."  I think I came to associate my body's worth based on others' appreciation of it (and its lack of worth based on others' comments).  It's easier, though, to reject others' criticism of your body than to reject their compliments.  But both are worthless, I'm realizing, because this body is mine.  It is mine to love, in the way that I see fit, in the way that works for me, in the ways that I can.  This body?  It is not yours to love.


After 29 years, the debate still rages:
do I look more like my mother? Or my father?
To whom can I attribute my coloring?  My nose? My facial structure?
The color of my hair, the size of my bones, my height, my weight, my smile
are all up for grabs.
Depending on the day and who is present
one side or the other will claim the pieces of me they decide
are most desirable.
Like vultures clamoring over the pieces and parts
they never stop to acknowledge my breathing -
just claim each piece as their own as though
it was the highest form of compliment.
I am nothing more than a pieced together statue of left-overs
waiting to be critiqued
by her makers.

They say it all comes down to genetics.
But Mendel didn't ask the peas to claim their offspring's shells.
Didn't tell the male he owned his child's shade of green,
never asked the female to claim the shape of her little shoots' pod.
He didn't make the children trace genograms in their tendrils
didn't force them to be nothing but a sum of their parts
collected into the outline
of a family tree.

My body is more than composition.
My face is not the outline.
My eyes are not subject
my nose, not object,
my hair is not adjective designed
to complement the shape of your pieces.
My breasts are not questions,
my hips do not rest in my body like punctuation,
my thighs are not adverbs inviting you softly,
this body is not meant to be diagrammed like a sentence.

My body is poetry-
it is living,
flawed and fluid,
I want to tell them:
I learned the pieces of you before I could choose.
I am learning the pieces of me by choice:
my body learns from the pieces
I have inherited
but arrives upon its own
new answers.

This body is not yours because you birthed it.
Is not yours because it resembles you.
Is not yours because you recognize its edges, its softness, its stretch.
This body's pieces are not yours because they appeal to your sense of beauty.
Its weight is not yours to notice, to touch, to review,
this body is not yours to know.
Not yours to define.
Not yours to comment on
to claim
to reject,
you do not get to name, or outline her boundaries.
This body is not yours to love.

After 29 years, the answer is simple:
my cells come undeniably from your lineage.
My eyes shine with the light of generations.
And even so -
I make it all

Sunday, December 14, 2014

On being a brave, promise-being of love

Here's the truth: I shouldn't be writing this right now.  I got a concussion in the middle of last week, and given the enduring headache and nausea, I think my brain is still pissed about it.

Here's the other truth: if I don't write this, I am going to lose my mind.  So I'm writing it.

The truth is that I am overwhelmed.  I am angry, and I am overwhelmed. 

I'm angry at my body for not protecting me better from the concussion.  I'm angry at my brain for not healing itself fast enough.  I'm angry that I get angry about this, and I am angry that my body taking care of herself always feels something like a betrayal.  I'm angry that I need to admit that my body is fallible.   

I'm angry because, right now, our world just feels like a fucking awful place to live.  I'm angry about too many injustices to name, and I'm angry most about people's passivity.  I would love for everyone to choose the side that I think is right, but mostly, I am angry about inaction, and about passivity.  Choose a side, dammit, and believe in it, fight for it, do SOMETHING, and do it with conviction. 

With that said, I'm also pissed about my own passivity, and my feeling as though I am unable to make actual change.  I am pissed off that I can't take ALL THE STARFISH and throw them back into the sea.  I know it matters to the one I threw in...but god damn.  There are so many dead and dying starfish, and that's not even getting into the little crabs and minnows and conch and sea anemone that are washed up between the starfish.  That's not even getting into the fact that no one has even written a parable about those creatures, and the fact that their lives matter, too. 

I think about that, and then about the fact that yesterday I went to a meeting and ran one errand...and came home and had to sleep for 3 hours...that just makes me more frustrated.  Damn me with my human brain, and my human body, living this very human existence amongst other fallible humans.  Damn it all to hell.

That said, I'm also aware that it is December 14th, and that I am nearing the end of my year of "bravery."  I'm thinking about all of the writing I have done about bravery, and about where I sit on this concept of bravery now.  I'm thinking about where I go from here, and what it will mean to let go of this nagging, chronic, pain-in-the-ass intention this year.  I'm thinking about what comes next.

As I was...ahem..."resting my brain"...earlier this week, I rested my brain on several podcasts.  One in particular had this piece that stood out to me -- it was from "On Being" with Krista Tippett, interviewing singer/song-writer Carrie Newcomer.  They were talking about some of her music and about song-writing, and Ms. Newcomer said:

Well, it's courageous to hope, because when you do choose to hope, eventually at some point your heart will be broken, and you will be disappointed. And then you get up and you do it again. But I think courage has nothing to do with being fearless. I think courage has everything to do with loving something or someone so much that you will brave it with solid feet or shaky knees because you love it that much....We hope, because we love it that much. It's worth the risk.

I long ago rejected the idea that bravery means the absence of fear.  But until hearing this, I had not yet articulated so clearly that bravery is about love. Why else would we dare it?  Why else would we go through the heartache and the fear and the tears and anger?  Because we believe it's worth the risk.  Because we love the outcome, and more importantly, because the outcome is love.

At the beginning of the year, I defined bravery like this:

Bravery is not about the absence of fear, or the absence of emotions.  Bravery is about feeling the fear, or the sorrow, or the heartache or loss, and making the choice to do the thing that is right.  It is the choice to do the thing that needs to be done.

And that's right.  Of course it is.  But there's more to that story that I have learned over this year.  As Ellen Bass says in her poem, "The Thing Is," think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you.
I will love you again.

And this is also right.  Every act of bravery is an act of holding life like a face in the palms of your hands, and telling it, "I am going to love the hell out of you."  Or perhaps, "I am going to love the Hell out of you," because any act of bravery worth doing, not matter how small, is an act of loving the Hell out of this world, isn't it?

For the past several weeks, I've also had the last several lines of a poem entitled "Anxiety Group" by Catalina Ferro going through my head:

You can't be this afraid of losing everything
if you don't love everything first.
Because you have to have a soul-crushing hope that things will get better
to be this afraid
of missing it. 

I fully admit that, more often than not, I am anxious.  There are many, many times that I am afraid.  I have spent a year thinking about, challenging myself, and engaging in acts of bravery.  It doesn't get easier.  I will be the first to admit that I am not a brave person. 

But I have done brave things, and I will continue to do brave things, because I love.  Because I have this "soul-crushing hope that things will get better."  I love this fucked up world in a way that makes my eyes spill over.  I love this world in a visceral, full-to-the-brim, bursting-out-of-the-seams sort of way.  I love the people of this world in a way that makes my heart feel too big to contain everything inside my body -- I can literally feel something I can only name "love" pushing at my skin from the inside out as I write these words.  In this human form, with inadequate words and language that can never say enough, I do not know how to convey it other than to say that I love.  I love, I love, I love in this way that is whole-hearted, but not naive.  I love in a way that is not complicit, or accepting, or passive.  I love this fucked up place, with its fucked up people, with all of its brokenness and devastation in a way that does not feel like love as much as it feels like ferocity and promise that goes beyond what even those words hold. 

And isn't that love?  Isn't that bravery?  Ferocity, and promise, and bravery, and intensity...and fear and anger and passion and brokenness...and whole-heartedness that envelops the entirety of me and my fallible body....what word do we have that is big enough for that but love? 

Why else would I do anything?  Why else would I be angry?  Why else would I try so damn hard to be brave, when I know that one starfish is just one starfish.  When I know that any good that I do is miniscule, and temporary, and insignificant at best.  When I know that writing bravely, or acting bravely, or trusting bravely makes a difference to no one but me, or perhaps to the 2-3 people who witness this act.  Why do I do it?  Why bother?

I had lunch with a Badass Friend the other day.  We were talking about bravery, and about trust, and about being badass, and she asked me something along the lines of, "How do you smile so much when you believe the world is such shit?"

I don't remember the answer I gave her, but here it is: I smile because it is the only way I know to hold that ferocity, promise, devastation, and bravery.  I smile because that ferocity, and promise, and devastation, and bravery coalesces into a whole-hearted love that is so strong in its intensity and beauty and anger and brokenness that I don't have a choice. 

I smile, and I write, and I speak, and I act when I can because I love. 

Because they are the only ways I know how to hold a mirror to the fucked-up face of this world and keep walking. 

Because I believe in promise and ferocity. 

Because I believe in whole-heartedness. 

Because I believe in bravery.

Because I am a ferocious, broken, fallible, devastated, brave, promise-being of love.

I think we all are. 

So may it be.  

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Trust Fall

Sometimes I write poems, and my process goes like this:  "Oh hey," I think, "I think I'll write a poem."  And then I sit down and I write a poem, and I say, "one day down the road, I think I might actually like this poem."

Other times, my process goes like this: "Oh hey," I think.  "That's a good line for a poem.  I think I'll write that."  And then I sit down and I start and stop and erase for a while, and I obsess over one word for a period of time, and then eventually I say, "one day down the road, I think I might actually like this poem."

Other times, the process is like the one I just went through.  It goes like this: "Crap.  I'm tired, and I'm angsty, and I don't know what to do with myself, and I can't figure out what's happening in my brain and my heart, and I'm going to write."  And then, for a good long while, writing goes like this: ".................." 

 And then, maybe I yell at the dog because he keeps putting his nose on the caps lock key and interrupting my stream of not writing.  Or maybe I go clean the bathroom, or maybe I decide I'm never writing anything ever again, or maybe I antagonize the cat.  But once I've started, my brain doesn't quit, and I have to finish it.  I HAVE to finish it.  Even if the only thing I have is "......." or "I fucking hate writing" or "I don't know what to write," or "if only I would be so lucky as to have a shitty first draft."  Eventually, hours later, typically in the wee hours of the morning, there is a poem on the paper.  A wholly unsatisfactory poem that I don't like, that I am not even sure if I will like one day down the road.  But there is a poem on the paper...and my heart feels better.

Trust Fall

My power lies in saying yes.
In grasping every opportunity before me
I have run so far on yes alone.
I have been this brave
and healing person,
I invite you in and make you comfortable.
Create myself from the pieces you hand me,
build a version of me I have not yet met,
I am piecing myself together
with only the pieces that are offered me:
I am a glued-together statue of shatters that were taken
and then handed back as gifts.
Forgive me
if I sometimes forget to say thank you.

What I mean to say is this:
there are times I swallow lies and wear them as truth.
Work my way to yes so I make them fit
hold my breath, refuse to breathe,
bite my nails,

No is a trust fall.
As my mouth forms the words, I cross my arms
close my eyes, and
lean myself backwards as my muscles tremble
anticipating the ways they can be broken or pulled from my skin,
"no" has been the knock on the door,
bruises that were hidden,
thinly veiled threats.
"No" was pushed back in my throat
every time I let it escape,
my no is the red flag before the bull, it was
only ever asking for trouble.
You tell me you're not worried.
You tell me I am stronger than this.
That I know better than to believe the lies.
That I am not that type of person.
That I wasn't really hurt.
When I tell you I can't trust my world,
you laugh and say
"of course you do."
And then I hit the ground.

What I'm trying to say is that
every time I tell my story without crying
I am lying by omission.
Creating a space of "yes" around me
leading you to believe I don't feel the wound so deeply,
I practice smiling in the dark
shrink into the holes saved for lost pieces of me,
no, there are no longer bruises you can see.
I bury the ache behind the yes
leave breathing room for you to answer the question before it's asked
watch you sink into that space as you exhale.
What I'm trying to say
is that no one ever had to ask me if I was okay:
I am a gutted cathedral of my own creation
worshiping the power of yes.

You tell me that trust can only be built through trusting.
What I'm trying to say is that
you can't mend a broken bone through practice:
the cast around my heart is there for a reason
and it's not to keep you from coming in.
It's to heal what's broken inside,
to align those shattered ends,
you tell me healing will happen
that it's only a matter of time,
but have you ever asked the riverbank what time has done to her edges?
has been eroded from my vocabulary, so yes
I keep fighting
but survival has never been equivalent to trust.
My survival kit is full
of weapons of self-protection
but the hunter doesn't trust the lion
just because he packed his gun.

What I'm trying to say is this:
Don't let them convince you your no can tame the wild out.
That you're strong.
That it's just a lion.
You have your gun if you need it.
Just be brave.
They'll ask you
what makes you think he won't
leave you alone if you say 'stop?'

What I'm trying to say is that
there is privilege in the question.

What I'm trying to say is that
I can't understand how they're
honestly expecting
an answer.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Bravery (Now)

I can't sleep.

This isn't unusual, and there are only 450,329 reasons why I can't sleep...but that's not important.

The important thing is that I can't sleep, and I'm tired of grading papers.  So tired of grading papers.  Effing papers.

So...I graded 20 papers tonight.  I have 8 more in this round.  28 is a lot of students.  Next time, I'm going with Scantron.  Or hiring an official Grading Assistant.  Except nobody would ever want that job, because grading sucks.

When I can't sleep and I stop grading, my mind gets Busy.  This is the result of the Busy mind tonight.  It is decidedly not a kickass poem, and pieces are borrowed from something I wrote before...but it's about the fact that I've decided that one can overstep ones capacity for bravery.  I think I've done that lately.  (Or perhaps life has overstepped my capacity for bravery).  (Or maybe both).  Or maybe, even as I'm 11 months in, I'm still doing this bravery thing wrong.

Or maybe I just hate it.  Maybe it's been 11 months, and in spite of repeated exposure and practice, I still just hate being brave.

Or maybe I hate it at 1:45AM after a string of Hard Days.  Maybe just that.

Stupid bravery.  I'm so over you.  January (and my new intention for the year) can't get here soon enough.  I'm about to leave bravery in the dust.

Bravery (Now)

Thinking it was time
she ripped off the band-aid of a security blanket.
Believing it would hurt less sooner,
rather than later,
she told herself this later was already late,
turned her head, held her breath
pulled it fast and hard with no hint of tenderness.
Gentle is for the weak.

There was a sting.  A tremor.  A moment when her body went still,
turned cold, colder, coldest;
then boiled hot, hotter, hottest
pulsing blood scalding her veins,
she smiled.  Pulled her body straighter to hide the trembling,
laughed, even,
believing sooner could not be too soon:
she left no choice but for better
to be now.

She hid the wound in a smile, so no one would suspect.
Mascara removed mistrust burned into her eyes,
her feet ached with the knowledge
that she could need to escape sooner,
rather than later,
but she ignored the burning, the aching, the trembling,
breathed deeply, knowing
every cell was in uniform
waiting for the order
to fire.

There is a glance.  A bump.  An unintentional touch.
An unfamiliar face.  A sound. A knock on the door
and the wound is ripped open from the inside out.
All cells unload their ammunition and reload as she stands, smiling:
no one can know that this later
was still too soon.

Hours later, she closes her eyes
heart-wounded and battle-scared
she drains the wound without words or tears
buries her burning in the blanket that envelops her
and waits again for the strength to believe
that sooner or later,
better will come.