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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.

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Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 15 (on truth-telling)

 

Oh, Patti, I am running out of truth to tell.

Of course, if I tell the absolute truth, I am running out of truth I am willing to tell.

Or I’m running out of truth I can tell without my inner editor screaming, “Stop being such a fucking whiner!” (My inner editor has a potty mouth. Sorry.)

Or I’m tired of insisting to my inner editor who is screaming directly into my ear, “But you can’t tell that!” that yes, I can. And being the sly little minx she is, she’ll swiftly change tactics to, “But are you sure that’s what really happened?” And I’ll say something smart like, “It’s not THE truth, it’s my truth.” And then she’ll get all potty-mouthed and furious again and start yelling, “But what kind of person says shit like that about their family?” at which point I make a Negroni and/or turn on another episode of Are You Being Served? just to shut her up.

I have perfected my spiel over the last decade since leaving graduate school about why I don’t go to poetry readings very often or why I don’t read that many collections of poetry. I have become the worst thing an artist can be—a liar.

I say my brain is just too full after writing all day at work to sit still and really listen to someone read poems. I say that what I want to do when I get home is relax and poetry isn’t relaxing, it stirs things up and makes me want to write.

And when I write I tell my secrets. To myself. And I don’t want to know them. I don’t want to know that I keep writing poems to an imaginary lover cause I’m trying to make up for never feeling loved by my father. I don’t want to know just how angry I am at God because even though I get that he’s the best parent ever, I still can’t figure out how to let him be the best parent ever. I don’t want to know that I’m terrified I’m as much of a narcissist as my parents. I don’t want to know how much loneliness I carry around with me, loneliness I picked up decades ago and have just never quite managed to put down.

I don’t actually want to know my truth and the poems, the beloved poems, the betraying poems, the longed-for poems, they never lie to me. And they won’t let me get away with telling lies so it’s better to leave them undisturbed. It’s better to keep them far away from the poems of others which might sing them alive.

It’s better to make that space to write only a few times a year, a door carefully opened for a measured time and then closed again at the end of 30 days. It’s better not to put myself in danger by keeping that door levered open, by refusing to let it close even if having to move between the poetry space and the everything else space is painful and bewildering and the image I return to when I think of it is a pregnant woman continuing to do daily things like wash the dishes and send e-mails and write blog posts while her child dangles partially birthed between her legs.

Remember I told you than an actor I met had levered something open in me. I thought it was just being able to talk with another artist as I used to in my grad school days. And while those conversations themselves bore and continue to bear fruit, I’m realizing now that what actually broke me was something he said when I was officially interviewing him, before we started to talk as friends. He talked about truth-telling being his ultimate goal as an actor, and about those moments of emotional truth also being what he was afraid of. (You can read the interview here as he says it much more eloquently than I’ve just summarized.)

I needed to be reminded that what I was made to do–tell the truth–was a damned scary thing. I needed to be reminded that what makes me an artist is that I do it anyway. I needed to be reminded that just as this actor sharing his story with me gave me the permission I needed to fling myself into poetry the way I once used to, that someone was waiting for me to write the truth that would give them the permission to do what they needed to do.

And I have to be fearless not just about facing what comes out from the end of my pen, but about putting myself in danger—by reading more poetry, by going to more readings, by having more conversations with other truth-tellers about how hard it is to tell the truth of ourselves—of telling the truth.

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