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On Brokenness

Sometimes I congratulate myself on what I’ve managed to accomplish despite the shaky ground under my feet. I have a masters degree, and I have published literary work in respected journals. I have published two poetry chapbooks, and have been told by numerous people how my poems and other writing have moved them. I can pay my bills and feed myself. I have not ruined myself with alcohol or drugs, and despite the fact I weigh more than is socially acceptable, I’m mobile and active in the world. Instead of congratulate, I should say I marvel at myself. How can I be so broken and still accomplish so much?

That question originally read “feel so broken” instead of “be so broken.” I changed it because I don’t feel broken day after day. It’s more that I observe the way I react to situations—a certain look from a coworker, a father and daughter interaction between two strangers, my day dreams—and that tells me, yes, this wound or that wound is not quite yet healed. There are days I do feel broken—when I’m depressed or manic, when every interaction, even the kind ones, feels like a lash against raw skin. But brokenness for me is about more than my emotions; it’s about seeing the patterns of behavior that are reactive, that escape from me into the world unbidden. In some ways, brokenness is a habit that I haven’t yet been able to give up entirely though I know its no good for me.

The brokenness that comes from emotional abuse is not a clean break. It’s a series of fissures that seem to never completely heal. Some of the wounds become less painful; some even appear to scab over completely. But my wounds are like a lake that you might presume to be completely frozen over, given the look of it. Yet too much pressure in the wrong place and you are plunging down down into the icy water, which steals your breath and—if you cannot resurface in time—steals your life.

Or brokenness is like lava flowing under what appears to be solid, ancient rock, bubbling to the surface with such force and such heat that the rock melts instantly, and there is the wound you thought you’d so assiduously and carefully dressed, screaming red and splintering you into a puzzle of jagged pieces you’ve no map for putting back together.

In movies before the icy surface gives away or the lava breaks through the rock bridge you’re fleeing across, you always hear the splinters forming the moment you accidentally step on the weak spot. But it’s not like that in real life. It’s more like that time when after you sit in your therapist’s office, sobbinb, you head home, with perhaps a stop for ice cream or a bottle of wine, finding solace in the fact that you have dug into a particular wound without permanently injuring yourself. Until you find yourself at work the next day, an ordinary day filled with ordinary tasks, and there you are suddenly in an empty office around noon, shaking and wailing uncontrollably, repeating to your (panicked) co-worker over and over, “But my mother didn’t love me.” Brokenness likes nothing better than to flash a big smile and greet you with a big sucker punch.

I don’t know how to end this blog post. I’ve deleted this last paragraph several times and can’t quite get to the end of this particular story. And perhaps that’s the truest metaphor of all.

Open Letter to Joni Mitchell, Day 6: Trust Me. Uhm, No Thanks.

Copyright 2015 Carrie Holbo Photography

My plants make me feel safe. I’m not particularly green-thumbed, but keeping them alive somehow makes me feel that I can accomplish things, which helps me be a bit braver outside the haven of my apartment. 

“…I had work to do to make my body bigger and bigger and bigger and safer.” — Roxane Gay, Hunger

I am 18 chapters into Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. A recurring theme is the idea of safety, and how, for her, gaining weight has been a way to keep herself safe. I am realizing more and more with each line of hers I read that much of my life is centered around keeping myself safe. It’s why I can never keep the weight off. It’s why I don’t have a romantic life. It’s why I don’t own property. All my energy goes toward creating that safety I never experienced as a child. I have no reference point as to what it feels like to be safe. I see in the relationships and families of others what it might look like, but any attempt at feeling safe is always performative on my part.

Having a bigger body like mine is like having a cloak of invisibility. Despite the fact that I take up a lot of space, if I walk into a bar or a party or cultural gathering, other than the people I already know, people look right past me. If you are fat, people think you’re unintelligent because you obviously can’t handle the mind over body control thing. (In the most backhanded compliment ever, my father once said to me, “You are too smart to be that fat.”) They don’t stop to actually look at you and assess whether they find you attractive—beauty truly being in the eye of the beholder—but they check the box for “too fat,” which lets them off the hook for even trying. Which is fine with me. I keep even my oldest friends a little bit at arm’s length because if they truly saw me at my worst—my saddest, my angriest, my most depressed, my most manic—then I know they’d leave me.

Relationships are the most fragile thing of all in my mind; they’re not built to withstand utter honesty and vulnerability. That kind of thing just places a burden on other people, well, at least my vulnerability and need does. So better to stay in the safe place, where you only reveal part of yourself. It’s better not to trust that anyone could actually stand the real you lest you undo the precious bits of safety you’ve found in your relationships.

(I just reread that paragraph, and noticed that toward the middle, I stopped saying “me” and moved into the general “you.” Even that distancing is a trick for keeping myself safe. It’s true that writing about the personal can lead to the universal, but modulating to the universal can also protect the personal.)

Even my identity as a writer is predicated on this idea of staying safe. I started writing because I learned that it was dangerous to express emotions in my particular household. It was dangerous to be angry or sad. It was even dangerous to be happy because you could be reprimanded for being too happy, incurring the cut of my mother’s “Don’t get carried away” or my father’s sheer indifference to what most would have considered happy news. So I squashed what I could down inside me, and if they insisted on leaking out, I put those feelings on paper. I wrote mostly stories when I first started, before I hit high school and threw my lot in with poetry, and they were all about murder or suicide. A young woman shoves a butcher knife in the old boyfriend who ended up wanting to marry someone else (while wearing a tattered lace wedding dress, of course). Another young woman commits suicide to punish her mother for not accepting the girl’s accidental pregnancy, her final message spray painted on a wall, “Please forgive me.” (My ideas around suicide were clearly not very developed when I was in my early teens.)

Poetry was an even better hiding place as I could obscure the roiling inside me in opaque images, coming after each other so quickly that there was no space to interpret them, or appreciate their depth. In my 20s, I wrote about music and musicians, unconsciously believing—wrongly it turned out—that if I wrote about other people, if I focused on deconstructing the blues that shook me to my core, I could keep the turmoil inside me invisible.

I’d always had a technically good singing voice so I took voice lessons in Chicago with a flamboyant woman—Jackie? Judy?—who would say to me, “You’re cooking up something good but you’re not dishing it out.” The same was true of my foray into acting. I had a small talent that could, perhaps, have been nurtured into something more, but it was unsafe for me to reveal myself that way, it was unsafe for me to metaphorically bare myself on the stage.

Staying safe means I don’t really dream for myself. Or, to be more accurate, I dream big, I write down plans with the intention of really exploring them, and then I let those dreams expire on the pages of my journal. I find something else to be enthusiastic about until the urge to even dip a toe into unsafe waters subsides. I don’t set goals, because reaching goals means stepping outside of my comfort zone.

As I’ve written before, I do grab opportunities, because I have learned the trick of bravado, which can be surprisingly useful when you need to apply to grad school or a prestigious fellowship or even send a batch of poems out into the world. I’ve learned to perform safety in ways which allow me to have a fairly decent life. But there’s always a backup plan: Oh, if X doesn’t work out, I’ll be fine where I am. And if X does work out, then the bravado kicks in mostly because I’m too scared to disappoint anyone, people-pleasing another form of seeking safety.

I wonder sometimes if I’ll only ever have a mediocre life. because I haven’t been able to consistently build that bedrock of safety beneath my feet. I use the term “mediocre” in a relative sense. I know that I get to do extraordinary things in this life: interview deeply imaginative artists who are sometimes even celebrities; engage with thought-provoking and inspiring visual art; explore my ideas in interior design in a light-filled apartment that makes my heart sing and makes me feel the way you feel when you get to home base during a game of tag. But I also think that the extraordinary things I do are merely glimpses of what I’m capable of. What more could I do, who else could I connect with, how could I change the world in a larger way if I could figure out how to feel safe in my own skin?

I try to find safety with God (and I thank him every day for his infinite patience and grace with me cause I promise you I’m a trial), but even that relationship feels unsafe sometimes not because of who God is, but because much of the cruelty in my childhood was the result of my mother’s privileging of religion and ministry over anything and anyone in her life, including her children. And there is safety, too, in not always trying very hard with God. A successful relationship with God requires action. It requires letting go of whatever it is we have come to think of as giving us safety. It requires trust.

I know there are others who have had emotionally abusive childhoods who manage to somehow build a platform of safety in spite of their histories. I know there are role models out there—like Roxane Gay—who have something to teach me. But right now that story of learning to feel consistently safe when you never had that overwhelmingly important early road map, that’s not my story. That’s not my story yet. That’s not my story yet?

 

An Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 4)

How do you say these things out loud Mr. Maron, week after week, in front of live audiences? Are you trembling even as you break into that great barking laugh of yours the way I’m trembling now as my fingers determinedly march across the keyboard? Perhaps the question is—how does one survive being self-aware and aware too of all the barren places propping you up?

I should tell you here that I’m 45, well, I will be officially in four days or so. And I’ve written poems always, it seems, and as a teenager plays about witches named after characters in The Outsiders and short stories that always ended with someone dying—suicide, murder—and a movie script when I was about 15 that starred Matt Dillon and me as star-crossed lovers who met after I’d been raped by a friend of his. On Trinidad where I was born there’s a pitch lake, a seemingly endless lake of asphalt. I thought for years that this pitch lake lived inside me, the lake and its attendant monsters (which is what leaked into my writing) and that’s why people couldn’t love me. By people I mean, of course, my parents but that’s still hard to write. And honestly, I didn’t have the language to really grasp what had formed me till my 30s and I didn’t have the understanding to grasp what was hidden in what I wrote with that language till just a few years ago, and I was still missing important words like “narcissism” and “abuse” and “unformed self” and “parent” until my father died last January.

It took till I was 36 or so and in grad school and realized that on the right day I could conceivably consider suicide and ran to the therapist’s office on campus and got some good drugs that I took for a long while and started to talk plain about what was inside me, not coded like I did in poems, for me to realize I didn’t have a pitch lake inside me. I wasn’t a secret monster and my parents weren’t right to protect themselves from me. So maybe what I’m saying is I’m a late bloomer. And also the truth can stare you in the face for four decades and it doesn’t matter. It’s not about whether or not the truth is easily apprehended—they were at fault not me—it’s about when you figure out how to stop listening to all the stories you’ve learned to tell yourself to explain the monster.

But when you’re a storyteller—as it’s plain you are—it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the stories you tell because they’re true and the stories you tell because you need them to be true. Is that something one ever learns to do with 100 percent accuracy?

To be continued…

Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 3)

… So knowing I can’t control my audience and yet knowing I’m compelled to write this all out loud, and knowing that the reason I want to write to you is that you say out loud all the things I should and I shouldn’t, how open can this letter really be, Mr. Maron?

What happens, I mean, if my mother finds out I think she’s a narcissist? Just typing those words, just thinking those words, just meaning those words is like firing a gun. Though it’s unclear if it’s aimed at my mother or aimed at myself. Is saying it out loud being self-aware and self-caring or is it self-destructive. I love my mother. We talk on the phone about TV shows and jewelry and the people she spies on at the mall. She calls me on my birthday and sometimes just because. Still, that feeling that I’m making nice with my (emotional) abuser persists, but what’s the alternative? I wasn’t estranged from my father, not in a no phone calls, no contact way. I dutifully showed up once a year at least and called him on his birthday and Father’s Day. I’ve endured years of picking out Mother’s Day cards and Father’s Day cards with my stomach knotted tight because there were no right words, no dutiful words, no pretty words that didn’t highlight exactly what I didn’t have with my parents. And yet I never quite broke the connection. I ran, as the song goes, I ran so far away, and still my relationship with my parents, broken and landmined as it was, as it sometimes continues to be, persisted. Does that make me courageous or a coward? Am I a narcissist too?

How do you say these things out loud Mr. Maron, week after week, in front of live audiences? Are you trembling even as you break into that great barking laugh of yours the way I’m trembling now as my fingers determinedly march across the keyboard? Perhaps the question is—how does one survive being self-aware and aware too of all the barren places propping you up?

I should tell you here that I’m 45…

To be continued…

An Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 2)

I hate how letters are always monologues. And in an effort to make this a two way street–and to change the subject because I’m already bored with myself and it’s only day one, I’ll start with a question: Are you a feminist? No, that’s not what I really want to know. I wanted to ask you about talking about your weight in public, which men never do but even that seems less important today (though I’ll get back to that later) because I spent the night wondering what it means to write an “open” letter. I wouldn’t mind if you read this, of course, and my friends, and my sister and one of my brothers. But I wouldn’t want my mother to read this or any of her friends, or any of my friends that are Facebook friends with my mother. But since I share this on Facebook (and Twitter but I don’t actually know very many people I’m on Twitter with) it’s inevitable that she may at least get an inkling.

Last November as my father was dying of cancer and I was trying to understand how to have a relationship with him–the kind of relationship where I could hold his penis to maneuver it into a plastic container when he could no longer urinate by himself and the kind of relationship where I could wipe the shit from his ass the night before he died as his body relentlessly turned itself off cell by cell, organ by organ–when I was trying to jerryrig a relationship stitched from tenderness and not rage, I wrote about him every day. In the days after he died and at the funeral, several of my cousins and people who I didn’t think paid attention to my writing came up to talk to me about it. And my mother asked to be my Facebook friend (which I refused) cause her cousin had told her I was writing about my father. So knowing I can’t control my audience and yet knowing I’m compelled to write this all out loud, and knowing that the reason I want to write to you is that you say out loud all the things I should and I shouldn’t, how open can this letter really be, Mr. Maron?

What happens, I mean, if my mother finds out I think she’s a narcissist?

To be continued…

Read part 1 of this letter here.

An Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 1)

Dear Mr. Maron–

What you should know first is that I don’t know what I’ll find here in writing this letter over the next 31 days. I believe that in writing I find myself, that is, I trick myself into revealing those things I don’t want to face. Which I suspect is a little bit of what happens when you turn on the microphone and let yourself riff, turning the unspoken into not fact, but truth, which is so much harder to bear. Podcast after podcast I hear you growing into yourself and perhaps that’s why I’m writing to you, to pull myself forward a little. As far as I can get in 31 days, which is generally how long my courage lasts. About 31 or so days of every year. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but that’s something else we’ll talk about later.

Right now my brain is screaming, “Don’t do this! This is a ridiculous project!” But I’m old enough now–and will be older still officially in about a week–to know that I tend to find transcendence in the ridiculous. And I know that you understand that urge to slice oneself open out loud, to perform daring acts of harakiri on the ego for a crowd. Hoping not to hurt anyone, yourself included, and knowing that that hurt is inevitable.

I hate how letters are always monologues. And in an effort to make this a two way street–and to change the subject because I’m already bored with myself and it’s only day one, I’ll start with a question: Are you a feminist?

To be continued….

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