Changing Colors

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This past weekend I went to Oregon and saw three of my favorite people in the world. One of them happened to be getting hitched (!!!!!!!!!), and witnessing her kickass community was another gift altogether. I know I’m prone to hyperbolize–but seriously, these women. We can be out of touch for months, not see one another for years and within minutes of reconnecting we’ll be laughing so hard my head hurts. We have been friends for nearly twenty years and live vastly different lives in far-flung corners of the world. We have partnered and un-partnered between meetings, had illnesses and have unraveled and respooled and had to tell the stories of our survivals and triumphs in the past tense. When we do happen to cross paths during crises, we cook meals for one another, watch one another’s children, open our homes. We reminisce a bit, but that’s not the bulk of what we do together. Each time we meet, we discover new reasons to be friends and take stock of who we’ve become. As with all great relationships, our friendship contains multitudes of friendships. If I met any of these women for the first time today, I would be delighted to become friends with them. But fortunately, that’s not the spot I’m in.

In airports and hotels and living rooms and in the mountains and on the bank of a little pond filling quickly during a hurricane. Each time we come together is its own story, but there are threads that weave through them, patterns that are present, even as we learn new things about one another. At fifteen and nineteen and twenty-five. When I was thirty we linked hands in a circle under the stars in Upstate New York and I swore to them I’d extract myself from a situation that was hurting me. All the people I have been in their company are part of who I’ve become now. Long sporadic relationships–even ones that aren’t all glowy–are great markers of growth. It’s the differences placed alongside the similarities plotted against the y axis of time.

Use that calculus in a poem. Maybe it’s an aunt or uncle or cousin that only visited occasionally, or a casual friend you run into when you visit your hometown. This doesn’t have to be a piece about favorite people–because really, at its core, it’s a piece about you (narssicism is no longer a disorder, fyi). Just write the scenes, see your changes through their eyes.

I hate to beg you to do things. Really, I do. But I must. You have to click on this link and read this poem. It’s a little long–but holy shit. It’s amazing. Tell me it’s not amazing–I dare you. It’s Mosaic, by Tim Seibles. Check out all those patterns.

And this, because maybe you weren’t invited to the wedding, but you should see this magic:

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Word:Sound:Power

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Another week of absolute magic culminates in a gathering tomorrow. I’m so grateful to be in the presence of so much grace and honesty and generosity. This community, a web we weave and reweave, feels like a salve in the midst of all the world’s suffering. There is hurt and courage and a willingness to hold one another’s aches as we move through the mud. Join us. We will laugh and we will cry.

Walking Backwards into the Future

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I say goodbye a lot. It’s one of my least favorite things to do–always has been. I moved schools a lot when I was a kid and I would avoid the active work of saying goodbye as often as possible–making jokes to diffuse the situation or skipping the last day of school. Even now, I’ll do this “I’m sure I’ll see you again before you go” thing and then dip so I can avoid saying a final goodbye.
Saying goodbye is part of my job. Folks come to the DC Area to receive medical treatment and then leave when they’re better or when they are no longer Active Duty Military. My relationship with my mother too, is peppered with goodbyes. She lives in Bangladesh and comes to visit once or twice a year and I am so unbearably sad when she leaves.
I had planned to write a generalized, vague post about the nature of goodbyes. About how sad they are and how ultimately we can transcend the pain by realizing that we are all connected wherever we go or something. Blah, blah, blah.
And then I read this blogpost by my friend Bryan. It is at once hilarious and heartbreakingly honest and brave (much like Bryan himself). And I realized that what I wanted to write about was not these inevitable goodbyes that I struggle with–though I’m sure I will want to write about them soon–but a goodbye of a different sort that’s been really hard for me this week.
Ladies and gentlemen of the Internet, there’s been some heartbreak in Seema-land. Heartbreak of a brand new sort for me. A goodbye said not because it was inevitable, but because I had to make a choice. I chose what I knew I needed over what I wanted. I had to understand that “there was no more room in me for that kind of hurt,” and take leave. I had to choose myself, ladies and gentlemen. I had to be a grown up. And it sucked. It sucks. I am sad. But this life is, more than anything, about learning yourself. About leaving things you want so badly when you feel yourself slipping into self-doubt, into someone you do not want to be. My brilliant friends offered me lots of love–burgers and pep talks and their ears. And I wavered a lot–wondering if it was just me, if the considerable good was salvageable, if I could have done something differently. But ultimately I have to remind myself (again and again and again) that nothing anyone else does is about me. That just as everyone has reasons for acting as they do, I have to take responsibility for my own heart and protect myself. My dear friend Ashley gave me the title line of this post–the idea that we look closely at what we’ve experienced as we walk into our futures, learn from our pasts, keep an eye on where we’re coming from as we move forward.

What are the feelings you want to have inspired by the people you choose to hold close? What does your life history not allow you to accommodate any longer?
This is not about blame–not blame pointed towards you or anyone else. It’s about accepting how your experiences have shaped you and
identifying what YOU need, which may vary from the ‘norm’–because your life experience doesn’t fit a template. We have to choose to surround ourselves with what makes us the best, most secure version of ourselves. We have to feel valued.

Fortunately there are poems about everything. Every feeling is ancient.

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Shifting Perspective

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I woke this morning to two things:

1. An article in the NYT about 4 Palestinian boys killed at the beach. The oldest was 11 or 12 and had sent his 8 year old brother home, because it was “too dangerous.” In the interview with the reporter the 8 year old child said, “He was always worried for me.”

2. I got an email from the boys’ father, wanting to discuss why our boys punch each other so much (they really do, it’s kind of their hobby).

I can’t stop crying. At my unearned good luck. At the danger in the world. I talk about war every single day. But there’s a part of me that doesn’t fully believe it. Intellectually I believe it, of course–but there is a part of me that stays in soft focus, allows me to stay right here in the now among my beautiful things and air conditioning and cups and cups of coffee. But sometimes I read or see something that makes all of that fall away. Like my suit of armor has evaporated and I’m completely vulnerable and conscious of how awful things can be. And I can’t think of why I should do the things that seem so important–going to work or to the doctor or to dinner with friends. I will, of course. I will do all of those things. I will put on my armor, though today it will feel like an aluminum knock-off. I will be penetrable and hold my face in a certain way that I have learned keeps my tears at bay. I will smile and make light conversation on the inpatient wards, I will go to dinner and laugh a little less brightly, ask people who love me to carry me, hold me closer and tomorrow the focus will become soft again, and I will walk through my life a little more easily. Because I don’t know what else to do.

But I can’t leave you there. When my perspective becomes like this, so focused on the things going on in the world and the time we live in, I am particularly grateful for The Writer’s Almanac. For hundreds of years, people have been writing about the wonder and horrors of this earth. It keeps spinning, the universe keeps expanding.

Rattlesnakes and Womanhood

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These past few days, I was welcomed in to witness a life completely unlike my own. A life where rattlesnakes are an ordinary concern, where the tap of hummingbirds against the rafters and fingers transcribing art through the keyboard are expected each morning. Often I forgot I was out of my element, in a place I hadn’t been before. So much was familiar: we had a kitchen dance party, cooked dinner and played board games, looked up at the clouds and stood on the porch listening to the hammering of a hailstorm.
And there was poetry braided into everything, part of the language we spoke and the way we moved through space. We cursed and laughed and asked openly about one another’s intentions. We climbed carefully up steep mountainsides and came sliding down them covered in barbed flowers, thirsty and laughing. We drank wine and watched clouds obscure and expose the moon. There was the gift of a nest of baby birds that had just hatched, fragile and awkward and infinitely beautiful for their absolute helplessness.

When we were trying to explain ideas to one another, when we wanted to offer bits of ourselves to one another, we shuffled through sheafs of paper and through files on laptops to find the words that were right. We searched up favorite poems in our minds and on the Internet and in this way other poets across the world and across time joined our conversation.

The specifics of our conversations were at once intimately personal and entirely universal–as all the best conversations (and poems) are. One such poem was Kathe Kollwitz by Muriel Rukeyser. There is so much to be learned from the women who walked before us and those who walk beside us. In order to fully do so we have to be honest. We have to consciously put aside (sometimes very uncomfortably) the ways in which the world has taught us to feel threatened by other women, to boast and portray perfection and hide our weaknesses from one another.

There’s a really moronic, ignorant, trollish, asshole tumblr (I know, people are entitled to their own opinions–my opinion is that their opinion is idiotic) going around called “Women Against Feminism.” In it, young women pose with handwritten signs, declaring their solidarity against (a simplistic caricature of) feminism by broadly disparaging the choices of other women.

To the girls who lent their faces to that project: If speaking out when you’ve been hurt or limited is unconscionable to you, may you be the first women in history to never be hurt or limited. And if you are not miraculously spared from reality, may you learn to appreciate and learn from the women who walked ahead clearing obstacles and lighting lanterns along the path you walk, the path we all walk.

On a brighter note, some pictures from my trip

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Remember My body

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This weekend began with a thunderstorm just after I returned from work. Rain fell in sheets over everything and I remembered the monsoon in Bangladesh viscerally–something flowed brighter in me. Out on my balcony, the potted Spider Lily, a descendent from my great-grandmother’s garden in Dhaka stood against the rail, unbowed against the falling water. I imagined it rejoicing somewhere in its ancient plant heart. I think sometimes about the things we remember without knowing we remember them or where we remember them from. And I think of the memories I am planting in my children, the things they will know that I never told them. I am working on this poem for them. I don’t often post poems in progress, but thinking about this–about the ways we speak and share memory through our bodies–brought so much consciousness to my weekend, I’d like to share it with you. Thank you for reading it, and for writing to it–how do you want your body to be remembered?

when you are slipping and seek something to grasp
remember the ledge of my clavicle
never fall without a fight

when you long for shelter
remember the threads of my fingers woven into yours
the web we made and remade

when obstacles in your path loom large
remember my lifting grip
under the hinge of your arms

when you must endure without being overcome
remember the firm line of my forearm,
the sticky hook of my elbow

when your sorrow’s clamor is unignorable
remember the scoop of my palm pressed to your ear
the dignity in surrender

when you need a place to rest
remember the soft landing you found
in the flat between my shoulder blades

remember my body
it was the first thing you knew

Rereading

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A few weeks ago, a new writing group participant asked a regular, “So basically, we just read her favorite poems and then write?” I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but I guess it’s more or less true. It’s nice as hell being the poet in charge.

There are certain pieces of writing that make me fall more deeply in love with words, make me want to write, remind me of what it is I came here to do. These are the pieces that I use again and again in my writing groups. The list is constantly growing, but there is some writing I can rely on to free voices silenced by difficult experiences.

When I was sixteen and living in Bangladesh, my mother brought The God of Small things by Arundhati Roy from America, reading it on her 22 hour journey East. Then my grandmother had dibs, reading intently in her green arm chair in the living room, oblivious to the rest of us and the stifling heat and the sounds of Dhaka traffic. Occasionally she sighed aloud. When it was my turn, I read it quickly, staying up late into the night on my great-grandmother’s old hard bed. I was changed thoroughly by the language–the way I’d been changed by The House on Mango Street five years previously. This is the writing that stirred a desire to write inside me.

Last week I had a one-on-one writing session with a poet who was having a hard time unlocking words. I hadn’t met this poet before, so I brought several books of poetry with me so that I could find what I thought would work best. We ended up using a book of poetry that I discovered just a few months ago: Floating, Brilliant, Gone by Franny Choi. The exercise was to write down the title of a poem by Choi, read the poem and then free write for three minutes in response. One of the rules I set at the beginning of the session was that sharing would not be required on any of the poem responses.

Watch Franny Choi read her poem Notes on the Existence of Ghosts

Then set your timer and get writing. Do this with some of your favorite pieces as well, and if you’re so inclined, send me some titles so my list can continue to grow. When I think about the great volume of things there are to read that I haven’t read, it stresses me out a little. I can’t possibly discover it all since reading while driving is generally frowned upon (though for the record, I don’t know that it’s explicitly illegal).

Look At Me

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Last Friday, at the Look At Me opening at Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, ten veterans read their writing in front of an audience of 75.  No two stories were the same–and yet all of the stories were familiar in some way.  By naming their specific experiences of the world, they challenged any external labeling, challenged the ways they are expected to be heroes or monsters.  They exposed themselves to be people, complex and varied, flawed and gleaming with beauty.  Telling our individual truths may be the simplest and most formidable act of resistance available to us.

We each have the right to define ourselves.  It’s something that most of us struggle with continually–there are certain ways we are told we are supposed to feel and behave based on our gender, the color of our skin, the places we have been, the things we have survived.  Equally stifling–and perhaps more difficult to overcome–there are the ways we want to feel and behave based on who we think we should be or wish we were, or on a version of ourselves that we’ve grown used to but ultimately have grown out of.  It takes a really conscious effort to separate the things we believe we are supposed to feel from the things we actually feel.  And when we take the time to sift through and find the truth, it can be jarring.  It is almost always a call to action.

If you missed the opening, there’s artwork on display, including a multimedia presentation of poetry films, until July 27th.  Go check it out.

Rejoicing in the Passage of Time

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Community is the coming together of individuals “who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment to rejoice together, mourn together and to delight in each other and make others’ conditions our own.” If I have used this quote before somewhere here, I apologize. It is M. Scott Peck, via “All About Love” by bell hooks. It is everything.

We are often encouraged to lament the passage of time (see my post with the bummer Sylvia Plath poem). And of course, I lament all the ways in which my children are growing up, spend time weeping over them while they sleep (wait, is that weird?), miss aspects of lives I’ve led, fear change. But the passage of time also brings growth, distance from grief, new beginnings and stronger bonds. This past weekend was about that.

1. I had the honor of being a bridesmaid in the wedding of my best friend from seventh grade. I hadn’t seen her little brothers since they were toddlers and we were in high school–miserable and feeling like our teenage problems were the whole of the world. Life has not been entirely easy on any of us. Seeing these guys as grown men, handsome in their suits and dancing with one another and their nieces and nephews, I felt such immense gratitude to have been invited into their community and for this visible evidence of all the ways we survive life day after day, year after year.

2. My older son finished middle school, and I gave him and his three best friends pocket watches as a graduation gift–high school is rough, and I want them to each have an object that reminds them of the love and community they built before entering that maze. (The girls at the graduation party they went to dug them. Bonus.)

3. I had a dinner party last night. It was Father’s Day and all of us were either away from our fathers, struggling with relationships with our fathers, or were fathers who were separated from children for one reason or another. There was a headstand/harmonica playing competition (won by yours truly), there was laughter so strong people had to get up from the table and double over. Our community takes some serious hits, and particularly in past couple of weeks there have been events that many of us worried would change everything. Maybe they did, but maybe change isn’t always bad.

Each of these people, whose separate life paths somehow led them to our table, will bear witness to the growth of my sons into men. I am grateful for constants and for the incremental changes that will give way one day to all of us celebrating our survival.

And so let’s rejoice in the passage of time, because every day we see is another day we’ve survived and grown.

What changes are you grateful for? What constants will you fight to protect? How are you different? How are you the same as you always were?

Send me your poems, your essays, your lists. Thank you for reading my words, and for writing your own.

The Blog Tour!

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The Blog Tour is here! Thanks to Mary Craig for inviting me on this little adventure. Writing can be an isolating endeavor and this is a nice way around that. I met Mary during one of the most pivotal times in my life. I had gone to the Writers at Work Conference in Alta, Utah–knowing very little about the conference, not knowing a soul there. It was one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made. I made some incredible friends, learned a lot about writing and craft and launched a serious professional rather than academic approach to my writing career. In keeping with the new professional approach to writing, I realized that writing conferences were an important part of my growth (I was just YESTERDAY talking to a friend I made in Alta about this), and a few weekends ago I went to the Creative Non-Fiction Conference in Pittsburgh. I ran into Mary, and she invited me to take part in this tour. I’ll briefly answer a few questions about writing, and then introduce you to two of my favorite writers (one I met in Alta), via their blogs.

What are you working on?

I am working on a collection of poems in second person and a separate collection of essays/hybrid works.

How does your work differ from other work of its genre?

I hate this question. HATE it–I feel it invites me to take a stick and bash the work of those who have come before me. My work is different because it’s mine–my voice is different, my experience of the world is unique–as each of ours is. But I’m not convinced that the world will stop turning without my work, or that I identified a hole in the market that had to be filled. I’m an odd, eccentric, humorous person and my writing is likely all of those things as well. I hope you read my writing and it takes your breath away, wakes you for a moment from whatever slumber we all keep falling into, allows you to look at the world through a slightly different lens, if for a short while–as all great art aims to do. I am continually reading things that do all of this for me, by writers I admire.

Why do you write what you do?

I write to understand what I’m reading and experiencing, and I write to quiet this voice in my head (a voice that sounds suspiciously like my ex-husband’s) that says, if they really knew you…. I write to expose myself and tell that voice to shut the hell up. I try to take risks in my writing, take leaps into experiences that make me uncomfortable or terrified and I make an effort to share my work with the people I think will like it the least. Overcoming shame requires overcoming hatred of self, and that only happens when we acknowledge, on the page and aloud, the things we have been taught not to say.

How does your writing process work?

I have periods when I can’t write–and they really used to stress me out. I would panic and wonder if I’d ever write anything worthwhile again. The periods usually last a couple of weeks, and everything I write during this time (because I force myself to write for at least a few minutes four or five times a week) tends to be crap–forced journal-entry type stuff, annotations of what I’m reading, notes on what I want to write but can’t–that sort of thing. But I’ve learned that the dormant periods give way to writing magic. And then I’m balancing a notebook on my center console and writing in traffic and being woken by poems at 4 am for a week or two. Those are the best times in my writing life, but in order for them to arrive, they have to be seduced into existence by reading widely and cooking and holding long conversations with people with interesting experiences far outside my own. I can’t force that energy, but I have to be ready to drop everything and grab it when it comes.

And now my favorite part–introducing two women I admire. I met Cynthia Dewi Oka at VONA in the summer of 2013. She is one of the most generous and talented poets I’ve ever met. I often say (behind her back–don’t want to be too mushy) that when all of our voices die out, Cynthia’s will be the voice that remains. Read her blog, get her book.

Born and raised in Bali, Indonesia, Cynthia migrated to Canada with her family at the age of 10 and lived in Vancouver, Unceded Coast Salish Territories, for 17 years prior to making her residence in New Jersey, USA. Her poems have appeared in publications across Canada and the US, including Kweli Journal, 580 Split, Briarpatch Magazine, Borderline Poetry, Zocalo Poets, Generations Literary Journal, Boxcar Poetry Review, Ozone Park Journal, JMWW Magazine, Terrain.org and Fifth Wednesday (forthcoming). Her essays have been published in Studies in Political Economy, Briarpatch Magazine and Leftturn: the Global Intifada. She is a contributor to Stay Solid! A Radical Handbook for Youth (AK Press, 2013) and Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the VONA Voices Writers’ Workshop (Thread Makes Blanket, 2014). Cynthia is a proud alumna and member of the Voices of Our Nations (VONA) writing community (www.voicesatvona.org) and a 2014 poet-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center. nomad of salt and hard water, published in 2012 by Dinah Press, is her first book of poems.

I met Kate Gale in Alta, at the same conference I met Mary at. Kate is who I want to be when I grow up. She is so solidly kick ass and professional at the things she does that she doesn’t have to act like a dude to be taken seriously. That’s the shit. Maybe if you’re not a woman trying to get things done that won’t make sense. But it’s a big, big deal.

Dr. KATE GALE is Managing Editor of Red Hen Press, Editor of the Los Angeles Review and President of the American Composers Forum, LA. She teaches in the Low Residency MFA program at the University of Nebraska in Poetry, Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction. She serves on the boards of A Room of Her Own Foundation, Kore Press and Poetry Society of America. She is author of five books of poetry and six librettos including Rio de Sangre, a libretto for an opera with composer Don Davis which had its world premiere October 2010 at the Florentine Opera in Milwaukee. Her current projects a libretto based on The Inner Circle by T. C. Boyle, based on Dr. Kinsey’s life with composer Daniel Felsenfeld which is in production in 2014 by the American Opera Projects and a song cycle with composer Mark Abel. Her newest book is The Goldilocks Zone from the University of Nebraska Press in January 2014, and her forthcoming book Echo Light is from Red Mountain Press fall of 2014. It won the Red Mountain Press Editor Choice Award.