Yesterday, one of the things Pastor Clark preached about was that we can always begin again. It was something I sorely needed to hear as I’ve gotten off track with so many things—prayer, reading my Bible, journaling, living a healthier lifestyle. At the end of service, there was an altar call for people who wanted prayer for beginning again. While he was praying for me, Pastor Clark reminded me that writing is a steadying force in my life. And while I know that with all of my heart, sometimes that knowing isn’t enough to get me out of bed an hour earlier so that I can write my morning pages (and pray and read my Bible) before I start my day. In fact, I’ve been so tired lately—perimenopause, winter, allergy season, work, take your pick—that I basically roll out of bed, jump in the shower, and head to the Metro. (For you literal types who abhor plot holes, yes, somewhere in there I do also get dressed, comb my hair, put on some make-up, and take my medication.) And it doesn’t help that I’ve been actively, albeit perhaps a bit unconsciously, trying to hide from my poems. But while I’m not sure I can manage mornings until this final stretch of April events is over at work, I can at least spend a few minutes writing on the blog each evening (well, except for Wednesday when I’ll be at work late for the Poetry Out Loud National Finals, which you should definitely watch live on arts.gov. I’m just saying…) So, here we go friends, I’m beginning again.
PS While I have your attention, here are some interesting things I’ve read lately…
According to Instagram, it’s been nearly a month since the book went up on the wall. And since then, I’ve barely glanced at it other than a quick glimpse or two at the additional poems I might add.
I feel stopped. I feel paralyzed. I feel like to move forward will take more effort than I’m capable of sustaining.
None of which is head-true. But it’s-heart true.
So I’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on.
My sister—the best cheerleader a gal could ask for—told me to prepare myself for this book to be big. Which I’m realizing now fills me with dread, the idea of people reading my book. Well, not people, my family. My dad’s family. I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m doing something wrong by writing about my father this way, by writing about all the ways I was consistently hurt by him. I think it’s true that my father can both have been a nice man and a terrible father to me, but on the verge of that statement being true in a much larger world, I’m not so confident saying it.
When I was in grad school, I had many talks with the nonfiction writers—all of whom were writing about their families—about what to do when a family member bitterly disagreed with the point of view you were exploring in your writing. If I remember correctly, one writer almost lost what had a been a close relationship with her brother over essays she was writing about their childhood with alcoholic parents. At the time, I wasn’t writing about my father, I was writing about my mother when I wrote about family. And I didn’t see any possibility of any real relationship between us so I didn’t really think about being careful about her feelings. I would always say to my friends struggling with what to say and what not to say, “This is your story. I’m sorry if it hurts them, but it your story to tell.”
For this reason, as I’ve been writing these poems I’ve removed most traces of my siblings though my sister and one of my brothers were very much involved in my father’s illness and death, and as I share a mother with my sister, she was a first-hand witness to the destruction of our original nuclear family which some of the poems also cover. Still, as I could only know truly what I felt about my father and didn’t want to put either words or feelings in their mouth, and since I could tell the story I wanted without including them, as a writer I didn’t include them (though as a sister there’s no way to untwine them from that time in my life nor would I want to.)
And perhaps it’s because they have not been part of the writing of the poems, I haven’t really thought about the impact of not just one or two poems about my father but nearly 30 of them. That will hopefully be read by thousands. And read before thousands. And discussed by thousands. And while I have no problem exposing myself to strangers–in a literary sense, that is–it feels scarier to expose myself to family who might say, “You’ve gotten it wrong. He wasn’t like that at all. But you were the one who didn’t…”
I grew up as a kid who was constantly gaslighted by her parents. I still feel like I have a tenuous grip at the very best on what actually transpired in my childhood. Because of the continual gaslighting, because of the atmosphere of fear and anger, I spent a great deal of my childhood trying to somehow be un-present. And though I’m an adult now, that idea of not being believed is still the most terrifying thing I can think of. I am still terribly frightened of doing the wrong thing. And somehow I’ve gotten it in my head that putting this book out there is a kind of “wrong thing” and will open me up to another wave of not being believed, which won’t be any less painful even if I do—hopefully—have better coping mechanisms.
Even now I’m gaslighting myself, the voice inside of me taunting, “You’re making a big deal over nothing. Everything you’ve written about really wasn’t as painful as you’ve made it seem. Seriously, exaggerate much?”
I don’t really know how else to respond but to be in my current state of panic, which I’m hiding in prolonged weeks of overeating and binge watching TV. It is terrifying to see one’s flayed self stuck to a wall with blue masking tape. It is terrifying to know you have to keep moving forward on the path that will put the most vulnerable parts of you in the hands of those that may not be as kind, as understanding as you’d like.
There is, of course, nothing to do but move forward. In my saner moments, I know the work is good and, as I’m written before, necessary. I also know that it is my fear that is demonizing my family. Still I really don’t know when this panic will subside. I should write something heroic like, “So I’m going to get back to working on it tonight.” But, really, all I can promise is that I’m going to go take a shower and wash my compression socks and leave those pages stuck up on the wall, which, the fact that they’re up there at all, is at least, something.
Back when it was still March, I had planned to write about how I spent roughly 20 minutes standing in the autograph/selfie section of Awesome Con staring at middle-aged Tom Welling who’s a fine looking silver fox now that he’s given up his tights.
Instead, I got the usual spring cold/sinus infection thingie that’s had me stuck on the couch and swilling Mucinex and sacrificing all the toilet paper I can find to my overflowing nostrils since Monday afternoon. (Editors Note: Yes, I do have boxes of tissue but they’re alllll the way at the other side of the apartment. Sigh.)
Before April turns into May or some such foolishness, I did want to share with you a couple of things I figured out about myself, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say things that I finally articulated about myself, while at Awesome Con.
One was that I have to stop lying to myself about not knowing how to talk to people. This was absolutely true at one point. I am definitely an introvert with very little small talk game BUT I’m also someone who’s worked in Public Relations for more than a decade now and spends a great deal of my professional life interviewing people. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I walked into a reception hosted by Smithsonian Magazine and X (Google’s “moonshot” division) and found myself happily chatting away with mechanical engineers and such about creativity and creating an environment where it’s safe to fail blah blah blah.
I know how to ask questions and get people talking, and while I can’t talk about specific principles around mechanical engineering, I certainly have thoughts on whether delivery drones are a good idea and about how to foster innovation in general. And I knew how to advise the newbie Slate writer I walked in with on how to find a story at a party at which you knew no one.
Yet, as I debated whether or not I should even go to the reception, the picture I had in my head was of the tongue-tied wallflower ill at ease in the corner wondering why she was in this place where she clearly didn’t belong. Turns out that picture is beyond outdated. And yes, sometimes I still stand by myself for a while at gatherings before I find someone to talk to, but I’m no longer uncomfortable with that solitude. It no longer saps my self-confidence. Now to work on updating my internal files so I always start from a place of remembering who I am, not who I used to be.
That being said, back at Awesome Con, I stood in line in the autograph are to try and talk to Cress Williams about getting an interview for my agency’s blog. My heart was pounding so hard that I thought it was going to fall out of my chest. And his gatekeeper dismissed me even as I handed him my card and explained that I didn’t want to pay for an autograph but I did want to ask for an interview for my outlet. Later that night I found myself wondering how I could have been so confident at the Google party, and yet so undone trying to talk to Cress Williams (who, by the way, is even more gorgeous than he appears onscreen. Yowza!)
I realized that my lack of confidence was because I didn’t know the rules. If one has a press pass at Awesome Con, you’re cautioned to the nth degree about not trying to use that pass to cut others in line or gain any special favor. There are also rules for every Con-goer about what you can do when you’re in the special autograph/selfie area (no cell phone pics you haven’t paid for, etc.) I was terrified that by trying to ask for an interview in person I was somehow going to violate the rules and get thrown out, with violating the rules—particularly if I don’t know them—still being one of the worst things I can do in terms of my childhood triggers. So that’s an area to work on. I don’t want to become an out and out rulebreaker, but I do want to not feel so triggered when I don’t definitively know the particular rules of a situation that I’m inhibited to my detriment.
I’m feeling a little bothered by the fact that yesterday when I was putting the poems from my manuscript on the wall, I was already scheming to take a photo to put up on Instagram. This is not a “social media” is bad situation. I think social media is a tool and, like any tool, it can be used for good or for evil.
What really bothered me is that it was a physical manifestation of my need to be seen, which is not a bad thing in and of itself; everyone deserves to be seen. But having had a childhood where my parents never took the time to see me, that need to be seen doesn’t feel like a normal human reaction to me (which intellectually I know it is). It always feels like a wound (which it also is).
I have obviously based my career as a poet on displaying my wounds to anyone who’ll look. But still, when that exposure is not quite intentional, when it feels like a reaction to something that happened long long ago rather than a decisive action, I feel what I guess is shame, or something close to it. I feel like I’ve lost control, which is another thing I dread. I also feel like I’m doing something wrong as a poet by letting you into the early part of the process. Maybe I feel like I’m jinxing it. Or maybe it feels like hubris: who am I to brag about the book I’m writing like anyone really cares?
And perhaps that’s what I’m really fighting. That leftover-from-childhood voice that’s screaming its head off: You don’t matter! Nothing you do matters! No one cares! Stop trying so hard to make everyone care cause they just won’t! You’re not worth caring about!
And yes, I do know that that voice is an asshole. And I also know it’s dead wrong.
And so I’m going to keep listening to Josh Groban’s “Symphony” and start some preliminary work gathering poems for the next collection while I give the Dad poems some time to rest and breathe before I look at them again. And yes, I’m going to prove that damned voice wrong.
This book of poems I’m working on is breaking my fucking heart.
There’s really no other way to say it. I’m at the stage where I’m taping it all to the wall as I arrange the pages into sections (cause Katy Day was right about that!). I know I wrote the poems. I know I know what’s in them. But to see all of that rage and grief all in one place is overwhelming. And I’m also realizing how much I miss my father. Our relationship status has always been, “It’s complicated,” but I miss talking to him about what we’re watching on TV. I miss sitting at his kitchen table and listening as he holds forth on whatever’s on his mind. To read these poems over and over again as I find their right spot in the book is a little like losing him over and over again, which I suppose is how it was in our actual lives together.
I’m also listening to Josh Groban’s new song “Symphony.” Though it’s a romantic love song, it seems to resonate with what I’m feeling and thinking about my father right now.
“I’m staring at the empty page trying to write the things I didn’t say to you.”
“You deserve a symphony.”
“I need to know you feel me with you even when I’m gone.”
I had planned to write something different to you today. I was going to write about the panel discussion I was part of the other night at Forum Theater after a performance of Nat Turner in Jerusalem (which you need to go see!) The other panelists included someone from Black Lives Matter DC, a reverend who works in urban ministries, and a woman who works in the arts in prisons. We were asked what justice looks like for us in our work. I wasn’t sure what to answer. I am certainly concerned with the issues of the day but they don’t often show up in my arts practice. Eventually I said that for me, justice looked like everyone having a voice and like everyone feeling seen.
And that’s why I need to keep slogging through this book though it keeps breaking my heart over and over again. Someone needs me to articulate my complicated grief because they’re desperate to see their own. So on I go…
Oh friends, I didn’t really mean not to blog for five days, which is not at all the same as writing every day this year, is it? Sigh…
Let’s blame Detective Murdoch shall we, as if it’s not me that makes the choice to spend every evening after work watching Murdoch Mysteries. As if Yannick Bisson himself is sending me secret messages—disguised as banal Instagram posts—saying You.Must.Watch. (Or perhaps it’s Constable Crabtree but at this point I dare say you’ve gotten the point that I’m shiftless and feckless and prone to TVing when I should be writing.)
Just home from an unexpected dinner with poets after a beautiful reading hosted by the Folger Shakespeare Library at the Phillips Collection. In some ways it was difficult to pay attention to the reading because the work was so good, it kept spinning me off into my own musings about poems and lyric essays and imaginative writing and so forth.
Afterwards, dinner with the poets and at one point I looked around the table and felt so incredibly grateful to not only be out with poets but to be out with poets of color. No need to speak in code. No need to explain otherness or difference. There is a certain exhale that can happen when there are only people of color—in this case Asian, Native American, black—in the room, a way that one can utterly be oneself.
Tomorrow I’m doing a panel after a performance of Nat Turner in Jerusalem at Forum. The three other panelists have various affiliations, but I am listed solely as poet (at my request). And I’m pondering how rarely that happens, that can one be called upon to speak authoritatively on a subject —outside of poetry—simply because one is a poet. On the one hand it’s a simple matter of policy; I rarely identify my status as a bureaucrat outside of events in which I’m participating in my federal capacity. On the other hand, it feels like a momentous claiming of who I am, of what my “real” work is. At any rate, it feels quite good (albeit also terrifying because what the hell do I know poet or otherwise?).
Speaking of Forum Theatre (which I try to do often because I really am inspired and impressed by the work they do), it’s been interesting over the last couple of years to see my orbit expand to include more theater people. I identified as a theater person for so long and, in fact, was determined to attend St. Francis Preparatory School for high school not because it had (at the time) an unbeatable academic reputation but because on the school’s brochure, I saw the words “Alvernian Drama Society,” and I knew that I had to be part of that. And it was, in fact, the best part of my high school existence.
Though I didn’t perform for most of my time in college, I did work at a theater, and my senior year I got involved in performing again and spent the first few years after college heavily engaged in the community theater scene as producer, stage manager, and performer, ending my time in Boston both stage managing and acting for a professional company, the Speakeasy Stage Company. In fact, I moved to Chicago to be an actress though, of course as you probably know, instead I bloomed into my life as a poet. I don’t know what it means to have theater becoming such a part of my life again, but it is exciting to be making at least a wee bit of a home in that world again (though I still hate musicals. Sorry folks!)
I know that’s an incredible hodge podge of things, and I’d like to further hodge podge it up by leaving you with this video that I saw on my friend Cathy’s page this morning. I’ve seen one or two of Russell Brand’s comedy specials, and I do believe he is one of the greatest underrated philosopher-thinkers of our time. I’m not advocating you get his self-help book (I can rarely make my way through those things), but I do think that even if you’re not an addict, there is much that resonates with what he says below in terms of our lives just as plain old human beings.
I was excited to write to you on Thursday and had emailed myself a blog post I scribbled during lunch to share with you. But I got home late from an invigorating conversation about Nat Turner in Jerusalem (if you see the show at Forum Theatre next Friday, yours truly will be on the panel afterwards) and thought I’d just post it on Friday morning. Except the menstrual cramps started in the middle of the night and I spent Friday having the worst cramps I’ve had since I entered puberty a zillion years ago. I think it was my uterus’ payback for letting me have a month off from menstruating last month. Neither perimenopause nor having a woman’s body in general are for the weak. I’m just saying…
And you don’t need to know any of that to read the post that follows, which is about poetry. But if this is indeed some sort of journal of my 48th year, it didn’t seem right to babble away happily—which is what follows—without ‘fessing up to having spent a whole day wishing I could rip my uterus out of my body. Sigh.
On that disturbing image, here’s the post I meant to share with y’all on Thursday. And yes, all the excitement there within still applies… or will in about another day or two when my hormones are done being monsters.
Several people have told me I should write a book (of prose not poetry), and I think they’re right but I don’t know what to write a book about. I saw this piece this morning about what it means to write what you know as I was flitting around the Interwebs, and I asked myself: Well, what do I know about? And I know about poetry, or I should know about poetry, or I know about writing poems, and anyway, I started writing about poetry. I know what I don’t know about poetry, I know what I don’t care to know about poetry, but I have no idea what I actually do, in fact, know about poetry. So I’m writing from a place of discovery (remember that manifesto of mine?) and perhaps one of the things I will discover is that I’m not writing about poetry at all even as I write about poetry, and that will be fine.
I don’t know if this project will persist, and that’s fine too. Maybe all I will discover is that I do not actually want to write about what I want to know about poetry. Maybe the only true thing will be I am interested in writing poems, but I’m not so much interested in poetry. Perhaps I will discover that when I say “poetry” it does not mean what I think it means. (See what I did there? she wrote, suddenly feeling anxious that she was doing far too much thinking about poetry and what if that was the type of thing that dries up poetry forever?)
More to follow, but obviously not on the blog, because that would defeat the purpose of writing a memoir about writing poetry… or something like that…
In the interest of total and complete honesty, please know that I’d much rather be finishing the last pages of Lisa Kleypas’ Midnight Angel than writing right now. In an alternate scenario, I’d like to binge-watch two episodes of Murdoch Mysteries instead of writing right now. Are you sensing a trend?
All I want to do is read and watch TV. I don’t want to do laundry. I don’t want to eat healthy meals. I don’t want to do my taxes. I don’t want to set up a grocery delivery for this weekend. I don’t want to write this blog.
When I was a child, books and sleep were the only way I could escape from the fear and anxiety that plagued my home life. I generally went to “take a nap” an hour or so before my mother arrived home, hoping that by the time I woke up a couple hours later she’d have sealed herself in her room for the night. The rest of the time I lay in bed or whatever safe spot I could find reading, occasionally age-appropriate literature like the Mary Popppins series or the Little Women series, but generally completely inappropriate literature like the endless stream of Harlequin romances I borrowed from one of my aunt’s friends, Victoria Holt novels, and all of Mario Puzo.
Decades later, in grad school, when starting to write about my difficult relationship with my parents, I escaped again—this time to TV. When I didn’t have to be on campus or I didn’t have homework due, I’d spend hours and hours unable to do anything other than stare at the TV. I don’t remember in particular what I watched, but we had cable so I’m sure it was a frenzied assortment of high and low brow movies and whatever TV shows were popular in the early to mid-oughts. With the help of conversations with assorted friends and after fantasizing a few too many times about throwing myself down the stairs at the place I was working for the summer, I went to see the on-campus psychiatrist who informed me I had “depressive disorder, unspecified.” She put me on Zoloft, which helped me bear the pain of baring myself on the page and helped me to live a life apart from copious doses of screen time.
I’m no longer on Zoloft, and I’m no longer depressed, though, like everyone, I do need a good wallow every now and then. There is something going on with me right now, but I can’t tell you what it is. Not because I don’t want to, but because I simply don’t know. I suspect there’s something I’m processing at the deepest levels—possibly because I’m at the culmination of all the poems about my father, possibly because of the anxiety-ridden zeitgeist we’re all feeling, possibly because my hormones have turned into assholes—and it will reveal itself to me when it’s good and ready. In four pages of journaling, or a new and unexpected poem, or it will just fall out of me during a friendly conversation. Till, then, excuse me, I have some literary kissy face to eavesdrop on.
I have some questions:
How big is my dream?
Am I setting limits on my faith?
Am I making time and space to listen to the Holy Spirit/my gut/my intuition*?
Am I willing to walk into the largeness of my life?
Am I willing to be uncomfortable in service of my growth?
Am I willing to be inconvenienced in service of my growth?
Am I surrounded by iron that sharpens me, or am I weighed down by rocks that dull me?
How do I not stop myself?
Why am I stopping myself?
What questions am I afraid to ask myself?
And finally, in response to this from Phillippa PB Hughes:
“Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames. Who fans your flames?
Are you fanning your own flame?
Thinking about all of the women on whose shoulder I stand, and I’m dedicating this to them.
The Makers of Memorials
by Paulette Beete
They sing. The sing blue songs
their mothers wore.
They sing grief, bone-thick & left-handed.
They sing songs cross oceans, cross sidewalks.
They sing skies sealed shut.
They sing men born wearing walking shoes.
They sing women born palms up.
They sing from mouths without lipstick,
charts without notes, pianos without tunes.
They sing back-door songs & apron-
tied-low songs. They sing.
Unmaking the made into something less
teeth-breaking. They sing
dead crops, dead gods, men
put down, men put out,
dreams put off. Off key, off beat, they sing.
Steady. Loud, Relentless. They sing
instead of, in spite of, next door to. They sing
in clinics, in bedrooms, on corners. They sing.
Women in blue & purple, in thorn tiaras braided
from agains & nevermores & never minds.
Songs of children lost, of savings lost,
pawn tickets lost.
They sing. They sing. They sing
blue songs of our mothers,
holler-songs of our blue mothers.
They sing the slow leak that will drown
the world. They call God home
for the re-making.
(This poem has been previously published in Beltway Poetry Quarterly)