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.
…But again, there’s no sexy way to say, “I had narcissistic parents who fucked me up and I’ve just figured it all out so now I can have a healthy relationship” while also trying not to spill your martini (with a twist, preferably of orange instead of lemon, but definitely not an olive). This is the part of the letter, Marc, when I really wish you were actually writing me back. Sigh…
My pastor told me today that what he appreciates about me is that I’m honest. By which I think he means that I’m not afraid to speak my mind. When I was a kid and into my early adolescence, if I needed something from my Mom, I would write her a note, leave it on the fridge, and then endeavor to be fast asleep in bed before she came home. She terrified me on a good day, much less if there was any chance of a conflict (that is her saying no and dismissing whatever it was I wanted to do). The extent of my understanding of her then was that if she said “maybe” to a request that usually meant yes.
I suppose I was fairly vocal outside of the home—in the drama club, with my friends. But I heard so often at home that I was a follower (a title I earned I think because I often zoned out to escape the intense emotions I felt at home) that it never occurred to me that I was a leader, and that I was, in fact, demonstrating that every day by being the one to speak up about what I thought whatever community I was in should do in whatever situation.
As I’ve become more comfortable with myself, speaking my mind has become second nature. My struggle recently has been to stop saying, “But I don’t really care what happens” after spending 10 minutes talking about how exactly I think a situation should play out. (My very smart boss has taking to pointing out, “But obviously you do care.”) I’ve learned to speak out loud but I’m still working on the part where I know what I’m saying has value. Whether or not I influence the final decision, my voice matters.
There is a train of thought in poetry that all poetry is political and it’s taken me a long while to truly understand what that means. All poetry is political because claiming the right to have a voice is a political act. It’s political whether we’re talking about politics with a capital P in terms of state craft and such, or if we’re talking about the politics of being part of a community—at home, at work, in church, in a relationship. Having a voice is the first step toward action. And that’s what’s so dangerous about having parents who are not invested in helping a child find his/her voice. That kid—by which I mean me—grows up spending a great deal of time reacting and struggling to act. That kid also grows up not understanding that being the voice with the wrong answer is not the end of the world. It doesn’t negate her right to be heard. And she doesn’t have to stand on an absolute bed of certainty—by which I mean piles of research and what have you—to risk speaking and thinking out loud. Not being right is simply an opportunity to learn; it’s not a reason to abdicate one’s voice.
One last thing I’ll say is that I’m a fairly intuitive thinker. I’m not a facts and figures person in the sense that I retain individual facts and figures to support my positions. I tend to take them in, swish them around in my brain for a while, retain their essence, and then let them go on their merry way. So I have an informed opinion, I just can’t always easily tell you what brought me to form that certain opinion. I just know in my gut that I’ve taken in enough information to give a valid opinion. But as I wrote earlier, one of the outcomes of growing up with parents like mine—like ours—is we can feel like we’re always on shifting sand, which makes it difficult if you’re an intuitive thinker to own your voice. You’ve never been taught to have that internal validation and without facts to back you up, offering an opinion on anything always feels like jumping off a cliff and forgetting the damned parachute every single time.
Which is why it’s so important to have a community, no matter what an introverted misanthrope you prefer to be. (I mean myself, of course. But feel free to join my club if you’d like.) We need others to affirm our voices, our right to speak out loud for a good long while before we can finally begin to do that for ourselves. And even then, I for one, still need a refresher course more than every once in a while.
To be continued…
In other words, I had a very happy day.
The other week you told Melanie Lynskey, “I don’t know if I’m happier but I’m older.” Why are you afraid to be happy? And why do I feel like I have to justify having the exact kind of day that makes me happy? I understand why happiness scares me. It’s still that kid protecting herself. Childhood happiness meant exuberance, an explosion of all that joyous energy that kids are expert in. It generally only lasted a moment, however, before I got told, “Don’t get carried away.”
And then there were those times that I thought I should be happy—I earned one of the lead roles in my high school’s production of Guys and Dolls or I was accepted to every college I applied to or I was in the top 10 of the 746 students I went to high school with. But when those moments were met with a “meh” or scant acknowledgement, I was plunged into disappointment. So not only did I learn to associate happiness with disappointment, but I learned to mistrust happiness and to not think I deserve it. Happiness became a quagmire of, “What’s the right way to respond?” with the underlying fear that no matter what I just wouldn’t solve for the right answer.
And perhaps that’s what you were talking about with Melanie Lynskey. It’s hard to have perspective on happiness for those of us for whom it’s a little bit of a shape shifter. But as I’ve grown older I’ve grown more comfortable with the idea of it. I will even admit to joy, which I think of as even deeper than happiness, a sort of bone-deep contentment and perspective even in the midst of struggle. I can revel in happiness and feel safe. I’ve stopped looking at disappointment as an inevitable downswing triggered by happiness and have come to understand that sometimes disappointment follows happiness not because I don’t deserve happiness but because life is ups and downs, and we have limited control of when those ups and downs fall. The relationship between happiness and disappointment is not one of causality; they merely throw each other into relief.
To be continued…