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poems can blossom truth inside our hearts

Stencil of a woman in a dress, dancing, head thrown back, hair hanging down, next to the words
(Poetry is an extreme sport – Miss Tic)

Good morning, good morning.

Outside, it’s traffic and crickets. I’m waiting to hear whether the owl will be back this morning – she was here on Friday, and instead of writing a post I got distracted by her.

Well, by her and some old morning writes. I went looking for what I was saying here–to myself, to you–five years ago, or seven. That’s one thing about regular journaling–getting to look back, see what you were saying before, what you felt like before, what you’re struggling with that’s the same  and what is new — you get to see how far you’ve come.

In my case, I got to look back on a relationship that felt unfixable at the time I was writing, that felt like kudzu or like I was in the ocean at a rising tide stuck in seaweed. I spent so many years trying to communicate with someone who literally could not understand the things I was saying — and, let’s be honest, in the converse, I also couldn’t, it seems, understand the things he was saying. I could never quite understand what he wanted. And  I kept trying, kept getting smaller, tightening myself up until I was knotted into a ball at the bottom of a bookbag, just a sticky thing with dust and hair and old gum wrappers stuck all over me.

And then I got the idea that maybe , that maybe, I didn’t have to stay there. Maybe my job wasn’t to stay in this relationship until the end of my (or his) life. Maybe I didn’t have to walk a hundred miles on my knees, repenting. I only had to let the soft animal of my body love what it loved. And then poetry started to sneak in to the sides and corners and crevices of my skin, my psyche, touched the parched places inside me, the places that told me I had to stay, I had to keep working, I had to keep trying to be the right thing for this person. 

(The chimes sing a little in the early breeze.)

Slowly, so so slowly, it came to me that I didn’t have to keep beating my head against a brick wall. Neither one of us deserved to be this unhappy all the time. He deserved someone who didn’t have to turn herself inside out in order to be right, feel right, be what he said he wanted. He deserved to be with someone who didn’t need to deny fundamental parts of herself in order to stay with him. He deserved to be with someone who didn’t need to swallow her tongue most days, or risk getting into yet another fight.  

There were poems that opened my eyes , the eyes inside my heart, or that turned my eyes back away from looking into a future that felt bleak. There was a Rilke poem that shifted things in me. John O’Donohue. And Mary Oliver, of course, Poems can do things that regular prose can’t. Poems sing in through the side door. They tell all the truth but tell it slant. They don’t hit us straight on, but blossom truth inside our hearts, our bellies, anyway. 

What I’m trying to get to is the fact that something that feels so entrenched, unchangeable, a situation you feel so utterly stuck in — that situation can change. And what’s true, at least for me, is that the first part of changing the situation was changing my mindset, my lenses. I had to allow myself to shift how I was seeing myself, and that relationship. Just very gently, I began to ask myself, What if I’m not wrong or bad or crazy or broken here? And what if he isn’t either? What if we’re just two very different people with very different needs and it’s ok to stop trying — after 8 years, to stop trying — to force ourselves to be something that didn’t fit?

(and then I feel myself wanting to say, hey, out here, if you’re having to tuck important and tender parts of yourself away in order to fit into a relationship, maybe that relationship isn’t the right one for you.)

I look back in those old journals, those old writes in the mornings from San Rafael or Tiburon, and I want to tell that woman, You’re ok. He’s ok. You’re just not ok together. Don’t worry about waking up tomorrow and picking up the threads of the same old fight you’ve been having since you first got together. Just set down those threads, pack your bag, and leave. I urge my hands in her direction, gesturing. Just go. But she won’t go. She’ll stay for another three years, another two. She’ll take small steps as she builds the muscles she needs to be able to leave. She — I — had to build the muscles I needed to be able to trust myself, to trust my own perceptions, my own vision, my own view of the world.

So much old stuff got triggered in that relationship. Old stuff about trusting myself, really — isn’t that at the core of it. Letting my needs be even a fraction as important as the other person’s? At some point you have to set down the old ghosts, step out of the maelstrom of voices yelling selfish, mean, thoughtless — bend your head down, duck underneath, and step out to the other side. It’s like taking off a pair of sunglasses and noticing that the world looks really different than you’d come to be used to. It’s allowing yourself to step outside of somebody else’s narrative and notice, sometimes for the first time, that you don’t fit anymore, that the story they’re telling you about you doesn’t match who you know you are. And that small voice inside you, your instinct, your intuition — becomes something you can hear again, you can attend to, you give some weight to.

The shift for me was allowing myself to imagine a reality outside of my ex’s worldview, he worldview he wanted me to live within. There were poems that helped me look at the world, and myself, anew. And writing practice helped me imagine new ways of being.

(Some animal is rushing around in the woods. At first I thought it was the wind, but the chimes are silent.)

You should never have to make yourself small in order to keep your partner happy (or your boss, or your parents, or…) And though I went into the relationship knowing that was true, intellectually, I still had to learn it in my body.

I still had to learn to trust it, trust myself.

I still had to learn to face a very old fear, one I got from my home as a young person — that If I stand up for myself, I’m going to get in trouble, and then I’m going to get hurt. And I did get in trouble in that relationship, let’s be honest. But I wasn’t a teenager anymore. I could walk away. I could say no to his demand that I see the world in such a way that minimized me, or that left me feeling crazy and literally unable to communicate effectively much of the time. I could step out, take a deep breath, and take off the glasses he said I looked so good in, in order to see the world in a different way.

We get indoctrinated, as children in abusive homes — we get trained into particular ways of seeing and understanding ourselves. So it takes a lot of work, in our adult relationships, to not listen to the old voices, especially when/if our partners say things that echo what our abusers used to say, in some form or another. They may not be intending to do so, they may not be abusive at all, but still those old messages, and those old survival strategies, are triggered within us. and so we just continue the long work of trying to dislodge that old learning, that old way of thinking that said I have to let you define reality for me because if I don’t I’ll get hurt

It took the time it took for me to move through that learning in my second marriage. I’m working to be easier with that woman I was then. The other thing that happens, over time, is that I can read these old notebook entries and not beat myself up, I can feel more compassion for the self I was then, the things I was struggling with, the complaints I kept echoing.

(And I believe, too, there are some relationships we can’t settle into until we have done deep work to heal some of these old wounds. These are mature adult relationships, people we wouldn’t be able to stand up next to until we have done the work to know and trust and like who we are–otherwise how can we love someone else who knows and trusts and likes us? They’re not going to stick around if we just spend all the time telling them how stupid they are for loving us, for liking us, for finding us smart or funny or clever or creative or kind … )

So today I’m grateful — for time, for poems, for writing, for that small quiet voice within that never stops whispering You deserve joy in this lifetime, that small voice that keeps whispering, even through days, months, years, when I can’t hear it singing inside me.

And I am grateful for you, today, too, for all the ways you make room for those around you to grow and change, and the ways you are easy with yourself in your own growing, too. And for your words, of course — I’m always grateful for your words.

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trusting our creative rhythms

Good morning, good morning. It’s early still on a Monday (late for me, as the sun is well up already!) — how are the words finding you these days? Are you letting them in?

I’ve been writing a lot since the beginning of the year, but I’ve been doing most of it in my notebook, offline. I went on a writing retreat a week or so ago, a much-needed break from the hustle of workshops and the new year’s Let’s Get It Done! energy. Do you get that kind of buzzy exuberance at the beginning of the year? Suddenly, everything I’ve forgone for months or maybe years (maybe even decades) is gonna get done now. It’s a new year! Everything is possible! Let’s make a plan, and then another plan, and then create a new writing schedule, then make a vision board, then another vision board for the other projects, then make a giant to do list of every thing that needs doing for my 9 or 10 Very Important creative projects that all need attention now.

So the beginning of the year is charged and exciting – like a Monday morning on steroids, if you’re like me — another chance to get it right. And then I overdo it with the attempt to schedule my creativity into a rigorous, regimented set of boxes, and the parts of me that need to sing, need to wander, need to breathe without being scheduled to do so, the parts of my creative life that need open space around them in order to blossom begin to leak out the sides of me. I start to cheat on my own systems: the employee undermining the boss. I start to come in “late” to work. I oversleep.These are my forms of creative resistance. Gonna try and put me into a box? Ok, then, I’ll go limp. I get out of sync, creatively-speaking, and begin to get tight and frustrated. What happened to my flow?

So, the weekend retreat was well-timed. An xmas gift from my sweetheart, she knew that this introvert needs time away from everything and everyone every now and again just to immerse in solitude and let the writing bubble up again. I gathered together the projects I wanted to work on — brought my journal (almost full), a novel I was in the middle of, the manuscript for my collection of essays about writing practice for/& trauma survival, and my laptop. I figured I’d finish reading through and marking up the manuscript, and then I’d get started on the edits/rewrites. I was meant to be gone for two and a half-days. I had big plans. The beautiful part about visiting this house — aside from the fact that the house itself is beautiful and rests right across the street from a cow pasture so that I can listen to cows talking to each other all day and feel rather like I’ve gone back home — is that AT&T has no coverage in the area. I allow this to work in my favor; no email, no texts, no checking the web for anything, not even cell service. If I wanted to connect with beloveds, I had to go to the little cafe down in “town” with wifi access, which I did the first night, sitting out front on one of the old ice cream parlor style wire-frame chairs, hunkered over against the wind, texting love notes back home to my sweetheart.

When I got to the our friends’ beautiful little house in West Marin, I unpacked the dog and all of my clothes and the food I’d brought. I changed into comfortable clothes, settled in, pulled out my laptop and discovered that I had forgotten the charger for the computer. Talk about creative resistance. I had about 80% power still on the laptop, which meant I could do a few hours’ work. Maybe.

I had about a minute’s worth of distress about this. Then I pulled out my notebook. Nearly full. This was a much bigger problem, but one more easily remediable without even the need for a car. I threw on my jacket and headed to the little market, fingers crossed that they’d have what I needed. And indeed, there amid the dusty packages of prepared food and expensive wine (this place is like a camp store for the well-heeled West Marin visitor) was a small stationary section, with a couple of blank notebooks– one 70pp single subject, one a 108pp 3 subject 3/4-sized notebook. Both were wildly expensive, but that was the price I paid for forgetting to pack one of the hundred or so single-subject notebooks I gathered up at Target last fall during school supply season (or as I call it, notebook season). Once I had the notebook in hand, I was all set. I headed back to the house, wanting to get all settled in before the rains came, and opened my novel. Before long, I had found my way into a very deep and solid quiet.

I read for most of the first day, writing a little after the novel was finished. I ate small, went for walks with the dog, watched the storm gather through the big front windows. I journaled, wrote fiction, found a rhythm that wasn’t electronically mediated, wasn’t driven by any sense of outside influences or cravings for attention or publishing or anyone else’s accolades. I got back into a much older relationship with writing — the one that was just for me, just for my own healing and discovery, play and practice. Once upon a time I used to spend hours holed up at cafes pouring words into these 3/4-sized notebooks, unfurling myself, figuring out who I was and who I’d been, what I’d been through and who I wanted to be. During my writing retreat, unable to do the work I felt I was “supposed” to do, something in me got shaken loose. I got to revisit that oldest and most sustaining writing practice: words in the notebook, play and discovery, no other aim but writing itself. Just write, just write, just write.

I did use up that computer charge, typing up an essay I’d written in the notebook a couple of weeks before. But then I turned it back off, walked outside with the dog, talked with the cows, and headed out to the beach to commune with the sea.

Thank you for all the ways you allow yourself to connect with  your deepest creative rhythms. Thank you for giving your creative self what it needs, even if what you need to create is different from what others appear to need. Thank you for trusting your creative self — and thank you, always, for your words.

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letting the feeling be a feeling

Good morning, writers. The sun has just pushed, a thick orange plum, over the lip of the Oakland hills. Maybe we’ll warm up a little now. How is the day where you are? What is your morning bringing you?

Today, I am caught on the line, deep in the struggle of trying to pull myself out of a depression. What do you do on the days when you are feeling bad about yourself? How do you treat yourself on the days when the triggers have overridden your coping mechanisms and you slip out of normal functioning for awhile? Do you allow yourself to fall apart a little (or a lot)? Or do you try to stuff everything into the shopping bags you carry around labelled Normal Functioning Adult! and pretend like everything’s fine?

On the days when I get caught in the difficult voices, when my skin feels too sensitive to everything, when all the noises are too loud and the tears live just at the surface of my throat, my initial instinct is always to try and figure it out. This is how the inside interrogation begins: What’s going on, Jen?  — never mind that the voice can sound remarkably like my stepfather’s; now I’m the one keeping me late from school or up without sleep, asking the questions. What’s going on with you? Why are you so upset? When are you going to pull yourself together? I go back through the previous days, recounting my actions and behaviors, trying to pinpoint the moment when everything came apart again, the moment when the clock turned over to 0 and my body broke open to depression again. It’s rare that I can find a single exchange or interaction or trigger point — but that doesn’t stop the inside interrogator from looking, and in trying to escape from the interrogation, I sink deeper and deeper into an inside cave.

The rational parts of me do their best at these times: I remind myself that it’s a feeling, and that feelings are always in motion. There will be another feeling that comes along soon. Depression doesn’t let that message in easy, though, does it? Depression throws a bag over your senses and says, This is how it’s always been and how it always will be. Depression makes it as hard as possible for the self-care voices to get in. Depression is selfish and wants you all for itself. Depression doesn’t ask for much — just that you sit on the couch with your tears and bag of Cheetos and terrible television and beat yourself up for not being out there conquering the world. It wants you to then look at yourself from above and tell yourself how ridiculous and self-indulgent you are — are you crying about that again? When are you going to move on? The voice of depression is rarely kind. We are often meaner to ourselves than anyone else possibly could be.

Trying to “figure it out” is often not the most helpful thing for me to do when I’m feeling this way, though it can take me days to remember that. The inside voices that are demanding an explanation are the same ones that are telling me I’m a failure and a fraud. Among the things I can do for myself on these days are: 1) talking to people about how I’m really feeling, and 2) letting myself feel exactly what I feel. Questioning, interrogating, resisting or critiquing a feeling is rarely useful for me — and yet I have to learn that lesson over and over again. Fortunately, as someone who lives with depression and sorrow, I keep getting opportunities to practice.

Some days are bad days. Some days we are triggered, or angry, or sad, or depressed — or all of the above. We’re not supposed to talk about feeling this way, especially if we work in any sort of helping profession. We’re supposed to have our shit together all the time. But the fact is that we don’t. No one does. Some days are hard. Some days we are lost in the long sorrow that we carry through and into this life. Some days we are devastated by everything all over again, and the walls we have casually built to contain our grief come crumbling down, and we can feel it. We can feel the parts we haven’t mourned or assimilated or processed yet. We can do a little more of the persistent work of survival.

Sometimes I can write into these feelings; sometimes I am not able to — I have to wait until they have abated a bit. Being without words to explain or organize or make sense of a feeling or experience can be quite scary; that’s how I process the world. But there are feelings that just want to be felt, feelings that just ask me to live into them. Yikes. Over and over, life gives me the opportunity to try again: Just feel it, Jen. You’re ok exactly as you are. Let yourself be.

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What would it mean to trust your struggle, as the image above reads? How do you take care of you when you’re hurting or triggered or lost? What do loneliness and depression mean for you, or for your character? Can you give yourself twenty minutes today to write into any of these questions — not to get it all worked out, but just to be present to and with your experience?

Thank you for the ways you are spacious with others when they are hurting — and thank you for the ways you are learning to be spacious with yourself, learning to allow others to be present even when you are feeling the most messy. Thank you, of course, for your words.