Evidence Based?

  

Earlier this week, I was honored to recieve an awesome award from the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore and my handsome tuxedo-clad son took this picture of me. There was something about the experience that felt kind of like being at my own funeral.  I don’t know how to explain that further, but I think the picture above might go some distance toward explaining it.

The next morning, while the darlings slept fast in the darkened hotel room, I woke up as usual at 5:30 (sweetheart, the to do list and the writing brain do not give an F*** about your award) and I took my bag of books to the lobby and drank coffee in the parallel company of all kinds of lovely strangers.  My favorite was a very nicely dressed older gentleman telling his wife, “I think I’m still tipsy.”  I was even (I’m pretty sure) in one family portrait.  But most of all, most of all, most of all, I finished “Raising Lazarus,” by Blair Justice and J. Pittman McGehee.  I am sad that I have read all that they had to say to me.  As you know, if you are visiting me here, I’m very interested in how we know what we know, and who exactly gets to decide that our methods of knowing are valid (or not). And why it is that we so often don’t trust what we know. I can experience a story giving me chills, or have a dream that tells me something important, or feel better after dancing around with my dearest, littlest, bestest friend.  But I still rely on validation by research and am quoting the articles that report, through blood draws and physicists, and a control group, that stories can affect our emotions, that we have a connection to a universal psyche and wisdom, that dancing and laughter and being with someone you love makes you feel good.  

Why do we put so much time and effort (and millions of dollars) into proving what we already know to be true, so we can then beg for the thousands of dollars necessary to convince people to do these things, which they have forgotten they already know.  What is this?

And by the way: Ma, I miss you.  Nobody else has talked to me in days either, I’m sorry.  I return to the world tomorrow.

So your prompt is to read the poem below and then, as in the second stanza below, ask a question and then answer it with complete confidence. For example:  

How do I know you will write to this prompt?

Because question marks are invitations.

You all know how to hit a girl’s inbox with poems.  Do it.

Making a Fist

Naomi Shihab Nye

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern
past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”

Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my
questions,

clenching and opening one small hand.


On the Backs of Mistakes

  

This week I had writing groups with people interested in learning from me and one another, poems in my inbox, sunny days, Cinnamon Toast Crunch on sale at the grocery store.  I hung out with friends and family, made it to yoga, wrote some things.  Kids snuggled beside me.  My apartment is clean.  I did the laundry.  I got paid.  All the ingredients that should me feel really solid and grounded were there.  But this week there was a darkness and self-doubt that clouded my flow.  Darkness has a source as surely as light does.  And it takes a lot more to put it out.  It’s not at all like blowing out a candle, it’s more like uprooting something that keeps trying to grab you.  As I wrote about it and tried to find the source of my particular darkness, I realized that I’ve woken to nasty emails from my ex-husband many mornings this week.  And while I don’t really believe the things he says about me, I am susceptible to them; they burrow into my psyche, remind me of that powerless self doubt, the person I used to be, the mistakes I’ve made.  And when I have to respond (because amid all the nastiness are real things we have to discuss as coparents) I find myself doing that old balancing act of trying to being true to myself and standing my ground but also trying not to make him angrier because we are so intertwined, and I know how willing he can be to feed his own flesh to the fire of his anger, how if I let myself be lost in the vortex, I can become charred myself.

I’m not telling you this so that you can be angry on my behalf, tell me that I’m none of the things he says I am.  My sister already did that.  I am writing this to remind you, and myself, that the mistakes we’ve made will continue to rise on occasion, will continue to be a source of darkness, and our work will often be writing to discover which of our many mistakes is darkening our minds today.  My poet friend Shomriel (you’ve heard tell of her) sent me the poem below in the middle of the week.  “You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,” is your starting line.  Set a timer for 20 minutes and write.  Discover the source(s)) of your darkness, and continue the long work of putting it out, or at least containing it.  It’s long, difficult work, that will leave you scratched and bruised and tired.  It’s your life’s work.  And mine.

Best of luck, my dears.  I’m with you.

Antilamentation 
by Dorriane Laux

Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read
to the end just to find out who killed the cook.
Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.
Not the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punchline, the door, or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don’t regret those.
Not the nights you called god names and cursed
your mother, sunk like a dog in the livingroom couch,
chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.
You were meant to inhale those smoky nights
over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings
across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed
coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.
You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still
you end up here. Regret none of it, not one
of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,
when the lights from the carnival rides
were the only stars you believed in, loving them
for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.
You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs
window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied
of expectation. Relax. Don’t bother remembering
any of it. Let’s stop here, under the lit sign
on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.

Keep Showing Up

IMG_4919

It feels pretty good to accomplish big things, to complete projects we’ve started, to end a week of writing and creating art with a big, awesome performance as we did this week.  But it can also leave you feeling empty somehow.  A feeling of, Now what?   

I imagine some of the writers I worked with last week feel that way.  As though the burst of hyper-charged creative adrenaline dissipated and writing such strong work was a one time deal.  I feel that way whenever I finish something that I’m really happy with or something super awesome happens to me.  What if I never do it again?  What if that was the only piece of good writing I had in me?  What if being an extra in a Drake video was the absolute high point in my life?¹ What if Drake becomes less cool and I can’t use that story to impress people in bars?² 

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about it in her amazing TED talk about creativity.  If you haven’t watched it and you’re feeling stuck, you should.  I’ve watched it many times over the past few years.  Dean Young says, “Our poems are what the Gods couldn’t make without going through us.”  They propose that the things we create are not in fact, ours, but rather are given to us, if we’re in a position to accept them, we catch them³. By putting on all the gear–the mask the glove, the chest shield, the knee pads, and crouching in the dirt again and again.  By not surrendering to our spectacular failures (which will always outnumber our successes) or the fruitless days when we crouch and wait and get absolutely nowhere.  And on days like that, the days when my fingers seem to widely spaced to catch anything, I am gladdest for the simple device of the refrain, and all the material that develops when you create rhythm by just re-entering the poem again and again.  So read the below poem by Adrienne Rich and hear the incredible Mahogany L. Browne read her poem Working Title.  Then choose a refrain that acknowledges that you are trying to write a damn poem.  “I am writing this poem…”  “The name of this poem…” “I know you are reading this poem…”  Then set the timer for 20 minutes and write.

¹this is not actually true

²unlikely

³sports metaphor because I’m versatile

 

 

I know you are reading this poem 
late, before leaving your office 
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window 
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet 
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem 
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean 
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven 
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you. 
I know you are reading this poem 
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear 
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed 
and the open valise speaks of flight 
but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem 
as the underground train loses momentum and before running 
up the stairs 
toward a new kind of love 
your life has never allowed. 
I know you are reading this poem by the light 
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide 
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada. 
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room 
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers. 
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light 
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out, 
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know 
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick 
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on 
because even the alphabet is precious. 
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove 
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your 
hand 
because life is short and you too are thirsty. 
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language 
guessing at some words while others keep you reading 
and I want to know which words they are. 
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn 
between bitterness and hope 
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse. 
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else 
left to read 
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.—Adrienne Rich, from An Atlas of the Difficult World

 

Spirit & Animals

 

20140521-184020-67220013.jpg

Above is my desk, as I came back to it after a few days out of the office sometime last year.  I can’t blame my wonderful colleagues and participants for the mess, but for grumpy cat and the mean portrait, and the mouse giving me a middle finger? I absolutely can.  Have I mentioned that I love my job?

I’m about to be out for a little bit again–starting Monday we’ll be doing a special weeklong workshop that will take me away from my regular sessions.  So this prompt is for anyone who’s going to miss writing as much as I’ll miss running the group.  It’s one that we’ve done before, but you’re not the same person you were last time you did it, so get writing even if you have done this one.  Metaphors and images make poems crackle, and if you’re writing a poem, you want to write one that makes people want to open their eyes and shield their hearts.  You want to surprise people so they pay attention in a way that’s unlike the way they pay attention to the ordinary world.  There are some words and images that we are sometimes drawn to but they are used so often nobody even hears them anymore.  The work is to wake your reader or listener with your words.

This is a prompt from Mindy Nettifee’s Glitter in the Blood, a really excellent book on poetry that will make your thoughts run in a million directions (in a good way).  The exercise is great for generating metaphors and impactful images, and so we use it in conjunction with “Elephants” from “When My Brother Was an Aztec” by the brilliant Natalie Diaz, who punches you hard with images in her work.  You can read the poem here.

So now that you’ve read the poem, I want you to make a list of things you’re struggling with. Next to that I want you to list an animal that each of those things reminds you of.  Next to that, jot down some characteristics of each animal–here in this process, you’ll discover that one metaphor comes the easiest, and that’s where you decide which one you’re going to write about.  Now cross out the middle column.  Write about the emotion as though it has the characteristics of the animal, but DO NOT NAME THE ANIMAL.

Here’s a quick, fairly obvious example:

My fear slithers through the grass, nearly soundless.

I know it is there, the grass moves slightly, I turn my head uncertain

lays slimy eggs in shallow holes it burrows in the landscape of my life

Time may wear its layers away, but a new skin emerges,

even without legs it keeps up with me.

Now guess what the animal is.  If you’re in a group, go ahead and read what you’ve written aloud, and take turns guessing.  You’ve got an image bank now, to work into a fuller poem, where you can use the name of the animal if that feels right.  Send me poems!

Seriously

I had a really serious day and then I decided to do a video blog post because…I’m not sure why, but it probably had something to do with this velour onesie I’m wearing and in this video I’m quoting Einstein (how’s that for serious) but also babbling and contradicting myself (I don’t want you to click the link and watch this and then be pissed that I wasted your time), the onesie is awesome though.

Seriously

And then I noticed this video I don’t remember making (almost exactly a year ago–2/26/2014) and clicked on it and thought, huh, I must have been having pretty much this exact kind of day a year ago, but handled it differently.  So there you are.  Exactly nowhere.

Sometimes I just want

 

This piece (an essay not a video), “Warnings for My Sons,” on The Manifest Station went live today.  It means a lot to me.  It’s all the problems I’m thinking about and trying to make peace with not solving in one essay.  Thanks for reading.

Gratitude

If you judge by the pictures I’ve chosen here, it looks like I went to Grad School with two other students, one teacher, and a bunch of taxidermied animals.  I assure you that’s not the case.  I didn’t have one particular picture that made me feel like I’d be giving you the whole picture of what “brain-on-fire” (in my dear friend Rania’s words) fun it is to study what I want to study in the presence of people who help me tease what seems so abstract and nebulous into sentences, and empower me to feel like it’s important–and push me to make it better.  It’s a privilege, and I know it.  And to rise to it, I will have to work harder than I want to sometimes, will have to balance the vastness of what’s going on inside my head with the tangible importance of what I have to do each day.  It is a luxury to be able to put my thoughts on paper–to have access to language, access to technology and a platform to have my words read and heard.

As I was writing my mother a note about the experience (I was woefully out of touch with her and everyone else during the week), I kept writing grateful–for the friends that got me through it, for the conversations, for the cleared sidewalks and warm, dry indoor surfaces, for the meals I didn’t have to prepare.  But I complain a lot, worry a lot, get in my head about whether I’m good enough, whether anyone gets what I’m trying to do.  If there were one thing we could all work on, in the place where our internal lives meet the external world, it’s gratitude.  A confluence of ancestor’s hard work, parental sacrifice and plain old good luck got me here.  Lots of stuff that has nothing to do with my personal ‘goodness’ or ‘worthiness’ or even intelligence has led me to these opportunities.  My responsibility, now that I have gotten here, is to learn how to get better and a huge part of that is listening carefully to the people around me and creating space to share the stage and page however I can.

BY JILL MCDONOUGH

English Composition at South Middlesex Correctional Center.
Julie reads out loud, and I praise her super thesis, then show
how her paragraphs veer away from it, just summarize.
And is she pissed! Too pissed to listen when her classmates try
to help. Amanda offers Act 2 Scene 1—”Now I do love her
too”—as evidence of Iago’s state of mind. But Julie’s
shutting down, frowning at her handwritten draft, writing
that took her weeks. Hey Julie, I say. Julie doesn’t look up.
Says What. Says I hate this stupid paper now. So I say
Hey JulieAmanda’s helping youwrite down
what she’s saying. She says I’m aggravated. I think
they take classes on naming their feelings. I say I know it
but you need to pull it togetheror you’ll end up screwing
yourselfThis is your chance. We’re all quiet, breathing
together, willing her to break out of this. Then:
a little miracle. I look around the room and see
that everyone is beautiful. Each did something special
with her hair. Hey, I say, again. I say hey a lot in prison.
Hey wait a minuteWhat’s up with everybody’s hair?
Mabel got a haircut. Ellie’s hair is long and black and gleaming
down her back, Amanda’s in French braids. Julie’s freshly
blonde, down to the roots. You guys all look great!
They laugh. They’re happy I noticed.
Thank god I noticed; now, for a minute, we
are women in a room, talking about their hair. Julie says
Amanda did her highlights, and Sandy blew it out. Good job, guys;
she looks great. And then I say, JulieLook at you
all pissed off over your paper when you’re so lucky!
Look at all these good friends you haveHelping
with your paper, doing your hair . . . She nods.
She looks me in the eye, back with us, back on track.
I know, she says. I need to work on my gratitude.

(null)

(null)

(null)

(null)

(null)

(null)

(null)

(null)

Nightmares and Heaven

(null)
Above is a picture of my older son in the setting of many of his childhood nightmares. We happened to visit a church that housed the school he went to preschool in and we snuck around into that hallway so that he could confront it. He was kind of astonished by how big he felt, how he had outgrown the nightmare. Some nightmares can be outgrown, others stay with us until they become reality, the nightmare serving as a reminder that the inevitable will come. One such nightmare for me is the death of my mother.
I think tonight’s nightmare was brought to me by (broadcaster voice) a poem shared with me this afternoon and my close friend’s mother being diagnosed with cancer. The poem, Heaven, or Whatever by Shane Koyczan made me cry during a writing group. In public. In front of other people. Understand this before you click it. But be brave and click it anyway.

When I woke, I sent my friend an email:

Thinking about you and how terrified you must be. I haven’t got any be strong, don’t worry, or this is how you navigate this things to say to you. I don’t know what words navigate something as slippery and scary as holding a lightning rod. I know you, and I know you will do it with grace.

And I suggest this: write her letters. Know what you need to say and say it, if even to yourself, and then act on it in your interactions with her. Regret is unfortunately the only thing that remains. I hate to say things like this to you, to ask you to breathe into the very places that hurt. But I wish someone had told me that.

Then I called my mother, halfway around the world, 3 am here being 3 pm there, and could barely get words out.

So I sent my mother this email:
In my dream I had one last day with you. And only kind of knew it. And we went on a drive in a sort of car, stopping everywhere that was strange but in the dream somewhat familiar and a part of your life. And I kept getting nervous-angry–when I got lost, when I didn’t have the correct change for toll, when the roads were narrow and suspended in the air like hammocks. And you were calm, and patient and joking (which sometimes made me more angry, as it does). But toward the end I realized that I would have to do all of it by myself from now on. And just before waking I turned to you and said, “Amma I’m so scared all the time. How will I do this by myself?”

And it’s true. I’m so scared all the time. I guess we all are, aren’t we?

So your prompt is to listen to that poem, bawl your eyes out, and then pull your shit together and love the people you love with the kind of fierceness you won’t regret. I’m always taking poems via email. Always loving you.

Faith

IMG_0958-0.JPG
I’ve been thinking about faith a lot lately. Faith that allows us to trust, to leap in the face of uncertainty. To allow others to catch us. To have faith that they will not let us fall. We do this all the time–whether we want to or not. As we navigate traffic, send our children to school, fall in love, tell our stories at open mics. Faith is belief that acknowledges the necessity of hope. Without my faith I could not cross the street in this soft body. Without the faith of the men and women in my writing groups–in me and in one another–we could not feel what we do, could not keep getting better.

All the good in the world runs on faith that is met with love. And our capacity to keep extending faith in spite of all the heartbreak and loss and unmet expectation, to keep feeling gratitude when it’s met by love–is perhaps the greatest case that could be made for faith.

On Sunday, I went to a reading by the divine powerhouse Elmaz Abinader and brought home a (signed!) copy of her newest collection of poems, This House, My Bones. It’s really something this book. To be read and read and read again. I like to be surprised by poems–nothing gimmicky, a gasp will do. These poems quietly surprise. And in it was the poem below.

Read this poem and then copy the title onto your page and record your own. What is faith? What evidence of faith have you witnessed, do you witness? What evidence of faith do you display? What terrifies you in the way it calls you to stand on the precipice, desperate to jump, desperate to believe, to fall?

That isn’t Faith, This is

for John Herman

You listen
more attentive than most
take mental notes
of where the knife
will enter your chest
where the underground
routes to your heart
have jammed
and need a bull
dozer to clear the way
replace the cables
resurge the flow

and you retell
it all like a good story
you heard maybe
from the person
sitting next to you
on the plane with
pictures, arrows
and instructions

and I find it funny
that of all the ideologies
that move through
our lives, the gods
false and divine,
the mantras and rosaries
the litanies and songs
the literatures and dogmas
we pray for that knife
to hit right

to not stray, for
the steadiness
of the hand that slips
a vessel from your
leg into your chest
that connects the tubes
like a master pipefitter
it’s a lot to expect

from someone and not
god who you may or may
not believe in, someone
who learns your name
ever so briefly, doesn’t
know what your heart
means and to whom.

I call it faith, letting
yourself sleep surrounded
by people you don’t know
giving your body to
their hands, exposing
the contents of your
heart the way you have
to so few or so many

and I hope that
your heart in their hands
knows a kindness
that strangers give
to one another in brave
circumstances: floods
births, confusion
and fear. This is all
we can believe. That
you may return
refueled and cloudless
love replaced with love
a heart come stronger.

Tools

IMG_5473.JPG
A few days ago, someone asked me what my New Years resolutions were. That’s always seemed like such a Cathy thing to do–eat less, weigh less, obsess over my bathing suit less, get my boyfriend to marry me. So resolutions weren’t something I’d really thought about. A few days later my friend Ashley, who is one of the wisest people in the world–a philosopher disguised as a woodpecker disguised as a butterfly disguised as a federal employee–talked about the new year as a fresh start. An opportunity allowing us to put our own mistakes behind us AND put the mistakes of others behind us. To forgive–ourselves and others and, “Start new traditions any time.”
I don’t expect to leave behind all the parts of myself I wish were better in 2014, but I am going to start some new traditions, to shift around priorities a little so that the things that caused me grief and made me feel less than I want to be can be reassessed. And I have to figure out what tools I need to succeed at that.

There are moving platforms on pulleys stationed around the outside of my apartment building right now, and I watch these folks lifting high off the ground to do their work at whatever height they need to be at for a given day.
I can’t always operate at my highest level, and expecting to sets me up for feelings of failure. I need to keep in mind that I can hoist myself to where I need to be for some tasks, remembering that there’s solid ground to return to, ground that I earned and cherish and can rest upon before the next time I need to rise and do some work that seems beyond my reach. I don’t always have to defy gravity. So putting my feet up, a kid under each arm is the place I’ll need to return to, and when I’m there I’ll try not to pay attention to the ropes gone slack, try not to feel like I’m wasting that waiting platform. I’ll rest and enjoy the ground as my primary setting. Happy 2015, my dears. What tools do you need on hand to build the best you this year?

The Roofwalker
by Adrienne Rich 
(1961)
–for Denise Levertov

Over the half-finished houses
night comes. The builders
stand on the roof. It is
quiet after the hammers,
the pulleys hang slack.
Giants, the roof walkers,
on a listing deck, the wave
of darkness about to break
on their heads. The sky
is a torn sail where figures
pass magnified, shadows
on a burning deck.

I feel like them up there:
exposed, larger than life,
and due to break my neck.

Was it worth while to lay–
with infinite exertion–
a roof I can’t live under?
–All those blueprints,
closings of gaps
measurings, calculations?
A life I didn’t choose
chose me: even
my tools are the wrong ones
for what I have to do.
I’m naked, ignorant,
a naked man fleeing
across the roofs
who could with a shade of difference
be sitting in the lamplight
against the cream wallpaper
reading–not with indifference–
about a naked man
fleeing across the roofs.

Rich, Adrienne. “The Roofwalker.” Poems: Selected and New, 1950-1974. New York: Norton, 1974.

I don’t know why

I have been trying to write this poem for at least a year. Last week, after the loss of a particularly beautiful soul, it began to tap on the inside of my skull with urgency. It’s all I have for you right now. I’ll be back with more soon. Stay safe. May you have both the strength to embrace your grief and the dexterity to put it down and walk away sometimes. May your body survive your mind, again and again.

IMG_0874.JPG

I don’t know why you shouldn’t kill yourself.

Tomorrow is the most terrifying day
of the week and even sleep, if it comes, leads you
unwilling, to stand in the ring on the packed red dirt
tired as you are of bowing and raising your heavy head
of putting on the show of stomping, of charging.

It will get better,
but the worst in your past vows to rise
in thick columns of smoke
again and again
stinging your eyes and enveloping days.

Ahead lies paperwork, and consequence,
and more nights of gravity without ground
I can’t promise you anything, can’t live for you, can’t quiet memory
or stem the flow of hot panic.

I can’t tell you how many pills or poems until
the heat of this fever has passed
and you regain your taste for
the metallic sweetness of frosting dissolving on your tongue
the insides of eyelids turned amber by sunlight
the pleasure of noodles spooled around a fork
while outside rain falls
the way your daughter’s laughter and tears burst forth
with equal sudden commitment

But maybe if you can train your grief to lay down by itself
after you gently rock it to sleep,
you can tiptoe away for just a moment
and then a moment more, to discover the lightness
that still exists in your outstretched arms
maybe you can begin to imagine another way

and find a reason not to do it today.