The question of whether you want to be right or in relationship in part comes from Terrance Real's work on marriage and his idea that you can either be right or you can be married, but it also comes from a lifetime of my own experience.
As a (recovering) fixer, I’ve been very attached to being right in the past. It made sense to me. I wanted to get beyond all of the emotional valences and agree on logic and reason, but I had to own that cleaving to “truth” without recognizing emotional truths was a controlling strategy on my part.
There are many shades and aspects of truth around just about everything in our human experience, and perspective matters. In relationship, another reality is that it doesn’t always matter what an objective truth is; it matters how we arrive at an agreement about shared truth.
If arriving at an agreement about truth involves someone feeling as though they were subjugated, shamed, told what to think, corrected, or browbeaten into an agreement, then you actually don’t have an agreement at all, and submerged resentments will someday surface.
Relationship requires mindfulness that we have not always been taught particularly in a culture were civil discourse has eroded into who can shout the loudest, who can get the best ratings, who can redefine or proclaim something with more ferocity or money behind them, or whose Tik Tok gets the most views. Civil discourse sounds really cold, but it means to have an exchange that is respectful.
It is often said that what men want most from women (if we’re talking in a binary way) is respect, but I wonder if underneath all of our relationships, don’t all want to feel respected?
When two people who love each other have some kind of incendiary event, however, it may be that there were 10 things that happened that led up to the triggering moment. Or something occurred for one of them that has nothing to do with what the triggering event was, but they are just so much in overwhelm or have felt so beaten down and disempowered that lashed back at the world. Or it could be old, un-metabolized wound or trauma being activated.
It’s hard to be OK with that. How often might your partner come home and blow up at you, but you know it’s really about the boss. Or it’s really about money or a parental wound or an old scar getting ripped open? Maybe a blow up at you over not taking out the trash or because you were 15 minutes late is not about you at all, but your reaction is to be angry and feel disrespected. Rightfully so, especially if someone isn't taking responsibility for their own issues an is transferring their anxiety or anger unto you. It’s hard to be curious about why that person has walked in so jangled, why their nervous system is so activated that they are trying to activate ours.
People project their wounds on others all the time. People transfer their anxiety by activating other people’s anxieties. As soon as the partner goes into their stress reaction, it relieves our own...temporarily. If the cycle isn’t disrupted, it can escalate fast.
I do not mean to say that we have to manage everybody else’s emotions. One of the best things a therapist ever said to me was that I had used my “intellect in order to understand why people do what they do, so you can tolerate their bad behavior towards you”. And they were right; it was just another form of reactive strategy to try to control pain.
And that doesn’t work. Pain is part of the process of living, and there are times when people have to work through toward some kind of agreement. There are times when we have to say to a partner, I know you didn’t mean to speak to me in that tone of voice. It hurt my feelings. Can I help you to settle down before we try to tackle that subject again?
It might mean sitting in discomfort with a partner and not working through a conflict before you go to bed, like the old saw said. It might mean each person taking some time to reflect, taking some time to self-soothe, self-regulate, take responsibility for their feelings before doing relationship work. Terrance Real describes this as letting your inner wise adult take care of your inner wounded, adaptive child. You take care of your wound, but it means facing it.
It also might mean saying that the relationship is more important than whatever the “thing” is that is being argued about. Maybe saying, Let’s both see if we can figure out what’s really at the core of this. It might mean saying to your partner or friend, I just want to listen for a moment. Tell me how you feel; tell me everything you want to say, so that I can just hear you.
It might mean repeating it back to see if you heard them right, or even saying to someone not I agree with you, but just, I’ve really heard you. I have a better sense of what was in your mind now.
It might mean creating spaces where two people can present what might be seemingly opposite points of view and trying to just sit in those differences.
Sometimes it may mean agreeing that you don’t have to change each other’s minds and not taking everything personally.
Or it could mean saying that we are going to need to figure out an agreement about whatever the issue is by asking, What steps do you think we could both take to get toward that end? That could be a seed that doesn’t grow overnight and might need a little time and watering. It’s a practice, not an end-goal.
This could sound laughably naive. Sure, just change your perspective, self-regulate, be mindful, respect your partner or your friend, and work through conflict by being thoughtful and putting into practice simple things like saying, Tell me more about how you feel while I listen, and then I’ll tell you more how I feel while you listen, and then it will all work out.
Easier said than done when two people are in deep in this driven culture, a culture that seems to support the idea of individual happiness over conflict transformation, of making money over finding out what your passion is, of acquiring wealth over giving service, or just the daily grind of work, work, work, and go, go, go. No wonder we walk away from friendships, marriages, community and civic organizations more now that ever. We are worn down and out.
And relationships take work to maintain let alone deepen. And while "not taking things personally" has some merit, on the other hand, everything is personal.
Yet another aspect of the truth of relationship is that making mindful changes could potentially lead to more pain because each person arrives in a relationship or friendship with all of their ancestors behind them and everything that led up to that moment in time, everything their family or communal group has been through in the past, everything they as an individual has experienced in the past. Family of origin (FOO) issues and personal traumas with a big T or a many little ts are always there potentially ready to come back to the surface.
And that’s okay. That’s even necessary.
Guilt, shame, grief, anger, all the un-metabolized experiences of our family lines and personal lives come back periodically to be re-examined and re-integrated as we develop.
Ultimately in relationships we can coregulate with each other and work on healing the past while growing each other toward a better future. Interdependently, lovingly, fiercely, and fearlessly, we can try to help each other evolve into the best possible selves that we can be, which can’t really be done alone.
It may start with prioritizing the vulnerability of relationships over the (perceived) certainty of ideas, with being curious about the complex systems that each individual is just one expression of, and a willingness to sit in the discomfort of our inner lives and hold space for others to sit in their discomfort. The more we learn to accept and work with and through pain, the more capacity for joy and delight we will have, individually and collectively.
I’d take delight over being right any day.
Most of us have heard of two reactive coping strategies that many of us get triggered into: fight and flight. Without even being conscious of how we developed those "skills", we can fall into one of those modes of reaction when faced with conflict with our students, families, friends, and even strangers.
Fight or flight are crucial nervous system responses that happen when our amygdalas go into action in order to protect us from real or perceived threats. But it can be much more than that. In addition to fight and flight, there is fix, freeze, and appease.
Appease is when we learned from very early on in our caregiving and family units that we needed to do whatever it takes to smooth things out, to make people happy, and to get along. Appeasers are the folks who need to learn how to say "no". These people are so nice. Mr. Nice Guy who never gets mad. The gal who always says yes to a new task. These folks are sweet and funny; they don't rock the boat. They learned to mask their inner feelings.
Freezers are people who go into paralysis under stress. Many of us are Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) who can become overwhelmed when faced with too much stimulation or conflict or don’t know how to regulate a highly active nervous system. Instead, a great coping skill has become shut down mode. These are the people who have to walk away, or go to sleep, literally, or ignore issues, or say things, like "I don’t know" when asked how they feel; they really don't know because they learned feeling too much is dangerous.
The Fixers want to solve problems for people. Their coping strategy, their way of maintaining control (as all of these coping mechanisms are trying to do) is to go into action and see if they can solve problems for other people. They are idea people, high energy, jump-in-and-get-their-hands-dirty folk. You got a problem? They have nineteen ways to solve it. They may even anticipate your issues and try to fix them for you. They are great in an emergency, but they also learned to fix was to forestall or deflect danger.
Fight, flight, fix, freeze, and appease are great strategies in life. They served us at some point, but they become problematic when they remain on unconscious, when they are our reactions rather than thoughtful responses to stress, conflict, or interpersonal relations.
Fixers, Appeasers, Fighters, Fliers, and Freezers can all benefit from working on curiosity, which can be hard to cultivate in this culture. It can be challenging to stay in the softer more vulnerable state of curiosity, rather than trying to move immediately into certitude or trying to figure things out or withdrawing from stress or conflict. To be curious about what’s happening with another person (student, friend, intimate partner, coworker), and perhaps even more importantly, being curious about what’s happening inside of ourselves rather than reactive to our own emotions and feelings, can slow things down and potentially avoid conflict, fear, or, inappropriate self-medicating, and, well, reactivity we may later regret. But it is hard to develop the meta-cognitive skills required to do this.
One way to get into curiosity as a mode is to phrase things differently when we interact with others. Instead of saying, I think that…,we might say I wonder if…? or Is it possible that…? or What do you think or feel about...?"
One of my favorite ones is to say to someone when they are talking about a problem, a concern, or a difficult feeling, Do you want to problem solve or process?
This is a way of establishing a boundary of respect right from the start. It is way of asking what the other person wants without defaulting immediately into coping strategy.
For an Appeaser or a Fixer or even a Freezer, knowing what the other person actually wants from you means you don’t have to reactively go into a habituated way of responding. Perhaps all the other person wants is to be heard and validated. "The gift of a listening face" is so important, and sometimes that’s all someone actually needs or wants. Or they might need that before wanting or being able to brainstorm and problem solve.
On the other hand, if the question is asked, and someone says, Yes, I want help figuring this out, then problem solving is on the table (and for a Fixer like me, I'm all in!), but again, there’s some pressure removed, because if what you wanted to do was just listen and that ended up frustrating the person you were talking to, you know what they actually want from the beginning and you can say whether or not it’s something you can help with. Or if you are not a Fixer or their issue is outside your scope of help, you can also say you are really not sure how to help but maybe you can help them identify where they can get resources or support.
Similarly, we can say to someone else what we actually want from them. We could say, I really need to vent and process; I’m hoping that you can just listen. We can be honest and tell someone that we are dysregulated, and we just need them to be a validating ear to help coregulate with us and bring down our agitation. Maybe that’s what we need before we can figure out our own problem solving.
Or we can say to someone, I have something going on that I am having trouble with, and I can’t figure out an answer, and I was hoping to bounce some ideas off you and see if you could see this differently then I am or give me another perspective.
Do you want to process or problem solve? has become one of my favorite questions. I ask myself it. I ask it with colleagues, students, friends, and loved ones. And I try to think about what it is that I need and see if I can state that upfront, as well.
I often use this question to self-regulate if I find myself trying to jump into fixing things. Not my circus, not my monkeys. I tell myself that when I find I am overstepping my bounds or trying to take on someone's problems that aren't my own.
I work to recognize what my habituated coping strategy is and when I'm unconsciously falling into it.
Those incredible survival skills that we developed before we could even speak are hard to be conscious of because they are meant to be automatic. They are expressions of our nervous systems going into action to keep us safe.
Usually we have one that is our major reactive habit when we are triggered, and often there is secondary one. For me, as a lot of educators are, it’s being a Fixer and if I can’t fix, I want to Fly. My husband, on the other hand, has two totally different primary and secondary triggered reactive processes.
Becoming aware of these in relationship has been incredibly important to us, because these are not deficits. They are strengths, except when they remain unconscious. Learning to respect those reactive strategies while also learning to become curious about them, self reflective about them, asking them inside ourselves what they tell us about our feelings, and then sitting in that dysregulation and that discomfort, while we step forward out of them into conscious co-regulation has changed the way we manage conflict and the way we deepen our intimacy, safety, and health in the relationship,
Because in the end, all human relationships have conflict, but conflict should ultimately be about curiosity about what could be learned from it rather than about winning or being right.
Starting with a question helps to establish the idea of being open and curious and it doesn’t just end with that question; it means shifting into a mode of curiosity about self and other, and if we’re lucky, that leads to more surprises and discoveries and growth.
Whether we work to be curious about students and what unmetabolized traumas they have experienced that have led to emotional scar tissue and reflexive rather than reflective behaviors or we are engaging our kids, loved ones, or friends, remembering that triggers happen and so do reactions and being curious about them rather than judgemental is a start.
The next step is about how to create a safe space for developing self regulation and teaching strategies for becoming responsive rather than reactive.
It always starts with us.
So you are an empath? You might be an educator or you might work with people in some other way or you might find yourself as an "avoidant" due to your level of empathy, but you’re a deep feeler.
You feel other people's pain; you feel their anxiety; you feel their dysregulation. You even feel their disappointments, confusion, fear, and you’re a magnet and a sponge for those people who discharge the anxiety or uncomfortable feelings they don't know how to regulate since we live in a largely emotionally illiterate culture, and, without even knowing it, you take it on as if it's your soul's mission (for the science on this, research mirror neurons--I love brain science).
It isn't, but if you’re an educator in some capacity, you might be a "fixer", someone who feels so deeply for their students, that they want to get in there and make up for, perhaps, an entire lifetime of other people's unmet needs or unacquired self-regulation skills. In fact, you are a good person. You are what Mr. Rogers would call, a helper. I get it. But you may also be a person who experiences compassion fatigue, emotional exhaustion, and a kind of dysregulation in yourself that you don’t quite understand but that comes when you realize you are not able to do the things you hoped you could do to help other people.
You may also be a person who works very hard to understand why people do the things they do but haven’t yet quite admitted to yourself that you do that in order to tolerate, forgive, or dismiss inappropriate, bad, or simply disproportionate, behaviors or actions on the part of others in your life.
Being an empath is difficult. It’s a gift, but there is a dark side that is not yet a mature version of this talent.
Some empaths feel that putting up boundaries means they’re being disloyal or that they don’t care anymore but that is not the case. Poor boundaries and a lack of emotional hygiene just perpetuate the imbalances in our relationships. In fact, we know we are huge models for students, and if we sense/feel/believe they have come into the educational setting with deficits or wounds some of us are driven to help, and some of us are overwhelmed by a job we don't think is ours. On the one hand, that drive to help may come from our own wounding and that resistance to help may likewise come from our own personal background.
Either way, we are modelling self-regulation (intrapersonal skills) in how we interact (intrapersonal skills) with others, and we can do it mindfully and healthily or continue to operate unconsciously out of our own issues.
There is an opportunity for growth in all interdependent relationships.
Right now, there’s more opportunity for growth in our educational settings and relationships than ever.
That’s a nice way of saying that the dysregulation and psycho-emotional volatility in the classroom or educational setting seems to be at an all-time high, and teachers and educators are being asked to do more emotional labor than ever. How do we respond?
Two different approaches are to be more empathic or seemingly so (meaning to erode your boundaries so much that you become depleted as an educator) or, on the other side, there are those who are making their boundaries so firm, so hard, that their own humanity is getting locked in, and they’re not connecting with their students, maybe not even connecting with other people in their lives because they’ve created a kind of vibrational scar tissue around themselves, a form of self protection because they don’t know how to deal with the incredible neediness that seems to be around them.
There is a middle ground, and that’s learning about boundaries in terms of managing one’s own inner world, doing one’s inner work, becoming mindful of one’s energy and vibe, and transactionally, learning and practicing new ways to engage with other people in our speech, mannerisms, and behaviors.
To boundary up! requires self-awareness and mindfulness because the boundaries are not permanent, and they need to shift depending upon the environment, the moment, the power dynamic, and the relationship. The amount of boundaries that one has with an intimate partner is very different than the kind of boundaries one might have in the workplace or the educational setting. That seems obvious, yes; however, even in that educational or work setting, the boundaries may shift dependent upon whether you’re talking to a supervisor or are talking to students, and, even among students that may shift, depending upon the presentation of that student and even the presentation of that student on any given day.
Becoming alert to what’s going on around you with the people that you are engaging with without becoming hyper vigilant takes practice. It also takes a calm and steady sense of one’s own interior, and knowing how to balance one’s own energy, one’s own needs, and having the ability to think both simultaneously and sequentially.
Sequential thinking is being able to see the number of steps that have to happen and being able to focus on one step at a time. Simultaneous thinking means to be able to think about multiple things at once.
Often, we are good at one or the other. Recognizing the difference in the way other people or students think or process can be helpful, but also practicing being able to do both of those kinds of thinking, sometimes even at the same time, is a useful skill.
It is not one that comes naturally to most of us, yet teachers need it. To be able to walk into a classroom of students, for example, with long range goals in mind, short term goals in mind (for the day, the week, the month) while also holding the possibility that you need to make eye contact and assess where each of your students seems to be energetically, physically, academically, and relationally is really difficult.
Most non-educators have no idea how hard just that is, and that the person standing in front of that group setting in a workplace or classroom has a huge influence on what the group coherence or chaos is going to be. It’s no wonder teachers become exhausted and that more and more of us want to change professions.
But we still need educators, facilitators, mentors, and guides. Education is still a passion with a purpose. But boundary up, buttercup! It’s not about stepping away from the hard work of being a mentor, a guide, a teacher, facilitator, a leader; however, it is very much about establishing and maintaining balance and learning the difference between becoming responsive rather than reactive, about knowing our limits and what we are responsible for, about being compassionate while teaching accountability.
These are some of the most "human skills" we can be modeling, no matter whether we are teaching math, history, writing, or running sales teams or work units.
And don't take anything personally, buttercup, because usually it isn't, and even when it is, that doesn't matter. Healthy boundaries do.
The title of my just released book of poems, Women & Other Hostages, draws its title from the Francis Bacon quote, "He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune;" which is a partial quote from his famous 15h century Essay 8, Of Marriage and Single Life. It goes on to say that people we love "are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief. Certainly the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men." Indeed sexist and reductive, but Bacon was of his time.
He also famously wrote in that essay, "Wives are young men's mistresses; companions for middle age; and old men's nurses." I know more than one woman who has said as much over a couple of Happy Hour cocktails during the time I was writing these poems...and surviving the betrayal trauma of my marriage's explosion.
Much of the new book is about women--friends, daughters, mothers--but a large number are about the way a marriage can implode, partners, even those who love each other, can deceive and gaslight; love can, in the time it takes to close and open one's eyes, turn dark.
Bacon also wrote, "It is often seen that bad husbands, have very good wives; whether it be, that it raiseth the price of their husband's kindness, when it comes; or that the wives take a pride in their patience. But this never fails, if the bad husbands were of their own choosing, against their friends' consent; for then they will be sure to make good their own folly." Even Bacon knew nothing is quite as simple as it looks.
I borrowed as an epigraph for the book, a quote from the poet Marie Ponsot, "Heart, you bully, you punk, I'm wrecked, I'm shocked" because aren't we all just hostages to fortune, unkowable sometimes even to ourselves?
There is a section in the book called MARRIAGE, a poem with with fifteen little sections. Here's is one:
(woman with two hearts)
One of her two hearts is dying,
the other thriving. She doesn’t have a clock
for any of this. Somewhere a crevasse
opens wide near a glacier; a breach
lets contained water out. Once a man
knew about a wilderness he wanted
to explore. He told her winter involves
a little dying, a little staying alive.
He was leaving, he said.
She would have ripped one heart out
to have kept him from going. She would
have ripped out the other to have gone along.
I didn't have two hearts, and the one I do have seized one day; a heart attack can come from grief after all. Here's a poem about that:
MUSIC IN THE KINGDOM OF THE HEART
In the echocardiogram, the muscle looks
like a human drumming, though the technician
holding the transducer to my chest, merely chuckles
when I tell her this. Maybe after seeing a thousand
of these muscles close up, she is inured to their natures,
her job being to look for what is flawed or broken.
When I think of a pump & valves, it sounds
like an engine, but the whirl in me is more
than machine: the sonic arms of valves thrust open
& bang closed with a kind of music, as if life
depended on rhythm. Which of course it does.
I used to be a drummer, but was no good. Still,
I tell the technician the old drumming joke:
There are three kinds of drummers, I say,
those who can count & those who can’t.
Sometimes I experienced the “drummer’s high,”
which neuroscientists explain as the measurable
unity between brains in the act of collaboration.
& sometimes even a weary somatic metaphor
makes a person’s feeling clear: my heart is broken.
Maybe the issue is that even in married life,
I thought one plus one equaled one.
Soon, they will cut a small hole in my thigh,
snake a camera into my femoral artery up my torso
in order to see the drummer under my left breast
who thrums so wildly, & look for evidence
of what went wrong, which they will not find.
Hold still, the tech says & moves the wand
around, We’re almost through, echoing
what he’d said: We’re through.
This book is for everyone who's ever been hurt in love, been the leaver or the left behind, and most importantly, it's for everyone who ever got through the dark nights of love by the grace and mercy of friends, friendship being a core concern in these poems: we walk with each other through dark nights back out into the light again.
And we go on.
The trauma of the last several years--collectively, personally--has left many of us raw and bewildered. I don't know anyone who doesn't talk of what's been breaking-betrayals, losses, the economy, the climate--and so many talk about the narcissists among us, which turns out to be all of us: the narcissistic wound we enter the world with due to inherited family patterns and trauma (thank you to the epigeneticists for the science behind this) and the new wounds we experience by our caregivers, who, due to their own unprocessed wounds overwhelm or abandon us or both. We all have a wound to our inner child, unintegrated ego elements, repressed and suppressed griefs that effect our performed identities, effect our perceived identities.
Who are we?
It's a long slog to figure that out.
If we are even doing that terrifying work. Easier, sometimes, to slog on in our own dreams, projecting our pain and anxieties on others, living in our defendedness, armor of falseness that might once have served to keep us safe (from the alcoholic father's rage, the depressed mother's oblivion, the neediness of adults who ask too much of us as kids because they didn't get what they needed back then, and so on) but now only serve to keep us apart from those we love, keep us from knowing who we really are.
Have you ever talked to someone and sensed whatever they were saying wasn't really for you? That it was as if they were talking (or screaming) over your shoulder at the drunken mother, the absent father?
Have you ever watched a friend in one bad relationship after another, as if they wanted to re-enact a trauma they've been carrying for years?
Have you ever found yourself saying this (or doing that) and then been really angry, and you didn't know why, and you didn't even really mean what you were saying or doing?
It's been a long slog to start recognizing the effects of trauma on the co-created world.
And to start opening those wounds and attempting to clean them.
James Hollis, noted Jungian analyst, says that part of maturity is learning to sit in anxiety and ambiguity, to learn to tolerate the unknowable mysteriousness of this living. To fully be, we have to hurt and stand in the pain until it widens us, enduring and transmuting it.
So many faith traditions speak of the necessariness of suffering:
Karla McLaren writes of the necessary befriending of all of our emotions, and that our vexed relationship with anger needs re-embracing: anger is the internal signal that one's boundaries have been transgressed. Healthy expression of anger is a necessary response to restore the boundary, create safety, and promote growth both for the person who has been wounded AND for the person who did the transgressing: they will not have a chance to grow without the pain and suffering of experiencing appropriate anger, the consequences of their actions, and are doomed to remain behind the veil of their unconsciousness and keep doing the action until they do get the responses their actions call for.
It's been a long slog, but we are wrestling with this collectively and personally.
We have a right to anger about social injustice and personal transgressions against us.
We also have an obligation to examine our anger. Certitude is easy to fall into. Victims often victimize others.
As we learn to express anger in a healthy way, sometimes, I find myself asking (myself and wondering about others): am I actually angry at THIS person or THIS thing, or am I holding personal or inherited angers that couldn't be expressed safely before, and now I am going to launch it on this person or thing?
Or asking: am I not standing for what is right out of my own fears and lack of self worth? Once, a therapist told me, "You use your intellect and ability to research in order to understand why people do what they do in order to tolerate how they hurt you."
Damn. Took me three years to unpack that, and now I wonder about anger and healing and reparations:
It's our responsibility to heal ourselves, to heal for our descendants, as well as heal for our ancestors. To examine our family patterns, and break them when necessary. To look at cultural and social exploitations (whose backs were bent building this country--tobacco fields, railroads, and so on?).
It's been a long slog, but at some point in most people's journeys, we seem to hit a cross-roads and a choice: will you succumb to fear based calcification and armor-up pyscho-emotionally? Spiritually? Keep projecting on "the Other"? Sucking energy like a vampire from others outside yourself or your perceived clan (this is where narcissism hits the end of the spectrum that we now call toxic)?
Or do we sit in the muck of the pain, claim it, and be accountable?
That's hard in the best of situations, but it is a longer slog if one was a perpetrator, if one has to face the ways one has harmed others. And we all have in some way.
Other emotions we need to befriend: shame and guilt. They are clues to ways we need to be accountable, repair what is possible, take responsibility, and grow.
I've come to think there is a kind of toxic shame that makes it very hard from some to do their work. When one's existential wound is so profound that being "exposed" as fallible, as having harmed someone is a threat to the unintegrated ego, the person who needs to make amends to another make calcify into that defended armoring, keep projecting, and hence seem trapped in a fog of their own making, sidling up next to others who are in the same hell.
I don't personally yet know the answers about how mercy and forgiveness really work, but all the faith traditions try to make sense of those.
I don't personally know the strange and mutable equation between righteous anger and forgiveness.
But I know this:
It's been a long slog to talk about race, class, gender, sexuality, neurodiversity, and more.
The poet Martin Espada wrote once that we are a nation of people screaming to be heard, but very few of us our listening.
Maybe we are beginning to listen to each other, listen to the past and reimagine a future.
I have my own little garden to tend: my own unexamined wounds; those I have failed and betrayed; those who have betrayed me. The massive personal bewilderments and dark nights.
They say, when you are lost in the middle of a dark woods, keep going, since you are half way out.
We slog on; we choose at ever juncture; we hold to fear...or foster hope.
The last time I posted was in the “before times”, the end of 2019, and now I feel as if I were tempting the gods when I wrote, “Come on 2020. I’m ready.” Nope. Nobody was ready for what 2020 did to us collectively, globally. Now it’s 2021, and I have a new book of poetry coming out. There have been times in this last year that made me question whether there was any point to poetry or art anymore. Then a young woman revived us with her inaugural poem, and right now I’m a glad again there is poetry in the world. Black Lawrence Press is bringing out my next book, which is ready for preordering now. My small contribution to this great going-on we all engage in. We got through 2020. We begin our becoming. Over and over. Women & Other Hostages blacklawrencepress.com/books/women-and-other-hostages/.
Nearing the end of 2019, I don't think I'm alone in feeling this was a year of massive challenges and lots of heart-break on the individual, collective, and global level. Trauma-talk is everywhere. So many of us are trying to reconcile the relationship between past grief and present conditions and wondering what kind of future we are manifesting, or if there will even be one.
For my part, I am coming through a several year period of profound personal breakage, during which I thought the dark night of the soul might never end, but I was determined to learn all I could about many of the life passages I was experiencing, existential wounds in my life and the lives of those around me, and my coping skill--research--led me to read hundreds of books that did indeed help me move through my own betrayal trauma and grief and find a way to begin to transmute those things into service to others.
They say, if your heart never breaks, you spiritually starve, and many of the world's faith and philosophic traditions offer guidance for moving through what we all go through to find something larger than ourselves. One guide of mine phrases it this way: get behind the medicine. A literary hero of mine, D.H. Lawrence put it this way, "Not I, not I, but the wind that moves through me."
And so little by little, I have been trying to find my way to serve better in the world, to cultivate gratitude, to draw light out in those I am lucky enough to teach or mentor, to practice forgiveness (and it is an ongoing practice), to look at my own inauthenticities and performances, and work to stop projecting on others and take responsibility for myself and to see if I can be as gentle as I can in expecting others to do their work, as well, and believe in the possibility of conscious relationship, inter-dependence rather than enmeshment, energy based growth mind-set versus fear-based triggering and armoring, and hope for co-creativity that includes a healthier, more respectful, world.
Right. Big goals. And we all have a tiny part to play. Mine is very small, but my updated website reflects some of where I am now, as I begin to peek out of the long dark woods I walked a long time in. We all go through those woods, sometimes multiple times, and if I can make any light along the way for someone else, I'd like to.
I'll be posting about heart math, polyvagel theory, vibrational healing, betrayal trauma, post traumatic growth, emotional literacy, how to live as an empath, art, writing, literature, film, and poetry. And maybe a few other things.
Come on 2020. I'm ready.
As we get ready for Jersey Mercy: Poetry of Place, Race, Sex, & Music as part of Light Of Day Foundation's Winterfest, Thursday January 12th in Asbury Park, I'm reflecting on why I wrote these poems, why I dedicated a portion the book to LoD and to people I know who have or are living with the terrible diseases the foundation raises money to combat. And I'm thinking about the idea of Jersey, the abstraction of mercy, and how they go together in my head.
I first began thinking about the difference between mercy and grace when Brent, my cousin's husband, was diagnosed with an aggresive form of ALS one February. He was dead by that September. He didn't know that previous Christmas would be his last with two young daughters, my neices, then just 2 and 6, and over the eight months from Brent's diagnosis to his passing, through the creeping paralysis that left him in the end unable to move a muscle from the chin down, he moved through suffering, we, his family, could not protect him from, but he also gained a clarity of heart in his experience.
A gruff, misanthropic guy as long as I'd known him, Brent was brutally humbled, as we all were, as anyone is when faced with such a devastating disease. He was only forty when diagnosed, just forty one at his death.
Just before he died, one day while I was taking a turn helping tend to his bodily care, having just cleaned the ventilator in his tracheostomy, a tube in his throat which would get gunked up with mucus, Brent began to weep. It's a terrible thing to watch someone cry when they can't move from the chin down, when they can't wipe their own tears, their own nose. He asked me to do that for him, and when he could speak again, he looked around the room, which was filled with cards and balloons and stuffed animals, all gifts of hope and care, all symbols of the many people--family, community members, local churches, volunteer groups, the kids' school--who were bringing food to his family now that he couldn't, helping clean house, take turns caring for him, helping with the kids, and more, and he said, "I didn't know how good people were."
There was an astonishment in his voice and an awareness in his eyes, an utter vulnerable but epiphanic surrender to knowledge of the heart of humanity he was being confronted by through his illness and through the kindness of people he had to helplessly depend upon.
In Brent's eyes, I saw something that stunned me and made me carry the tissue I'd wiped his tears with for weeks after in a pocket. I came to think what I'd seen was something like grace. I lost that tissue just like we can't hold onto grace.
Mercy is described as not being punished or being saved from suffering even though we deserve what might be coming to us, while grace is experiencing a blessing or gift not because we deserved or earned it.
It's hard to parse this out, but my book of poems, Jersey Mercy, is about the living music and about race and class and gender and the Jersey shore I've spent my life living along. A previous book, Panic, were also poems about the Jersey shore, about pain and loss, about the ugliness undereath the surfaces or our days and the beauty to be found even in the face of the horrendous, like Brent's experience. Panic is what I first felt; mercy is what I now try to cultivate.
A few years after Brent's death, my Aunt Judy was diagnosed with Parkinson's, as was my mentor, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Stephen Dunn. Both of them live with this debilitating disease with gracefulness, confronting their physical challenges with humor and dignity, a dignity born of confronting human frailty. They are both funny as hell. But man, you know it's hard.
Mercy in their cases might be that medical research has given them each treatments that are extending their lives, but Brent's suffering was off the charts and mercy for him might well have been the fastness of his death (eight months). But his daughters? His wife? We share suffering when someone we love suffers, and it doesn't end when they die. It lives in us.
I don't know who or what doles out mercy, but I do know we can lessen suffering for each other and that this place I've lived all my life--and maybe this is true of any place we root ourselves and give ourselves to and are claimed by--is filled with people trying to be human, playing the instruments of their lives, making music alone, together, dancing in the dark, in clubs, street corners, boardwalks, in kitchens, basements, and corner shops, with each other, alone, all of us dealing with private--and collective--suffering, all striving toward something like forgiveness. My Jersey is about that. To my mind, there's nothing quite like Jersey Mercy, and Light of Day exemplifies it.
And so did all the people who rallied about my cousin when he was dying, around his wife, his girls, the casseroles delivered, lawn mowings, house repairs, the volunteers who carried him in and out of the house when he had to go to the hospital, who gave Brent's wife respite when she was desperate, took her kids for icecream. And grace, too, was what I saw in them loving their dad the best they could, and his wife, man, I'll never forget this: when I and others begged her to send her husband to a facility and give up caring for him at home, she refused; again and again, she refused. She wanted to give him every dignity she could and let him stay with his family til the last moment.
I remember when she called to say Brent had passed. Eight brutal months. Her voice betrayed weariness. But it was clean. So clean. She'd done it hard but right as she could manage.
In my book, Jersey is a character who tries to find out who she is here on the Asbury Boards, in the backstreets of Eatontown and Long Branch, in 7-11 Parking lots and shore pizzarias. She's a stand in for all the people I've known here--myself included--facing things that want to break us, but we find a way to go on, with as much dancing as we can fit in as we do, and when someone we love falls down, we lean down with a hand to help them, haul them up if we can, or whisper something beautiful in their ear if we can't help them and have to let them go.
I hope you'll come out to this inaugural poetry event and support Light of Day and its mission. We'll have some great music by the Cornelius Eady trio and poems that will talk truth to power, speak the heart's sorrows and successes, and bring a little philly, a wee bit of Newark, some NYC, and a whole lot of Jersey shore power to bear. Here are some videos from my book. Maybe you'll like them; I took all the pics and vids.
Jersey Mercy Book Trailer I put together. Janna Smith, local writer and Jersey girl plays Mercy.
And here's a poem video: "God Stomp Glomp" by local videogropher Dan Kaufman.
This poem video was done by local artist and videographer Caleb Rechten:
"The Cops Never Busted Madam Marie" It takes its title from a song by a local singer song writer you might have hear of name of Bruce. He shows up in a couple of the poems as a character. Though everyone around her has met him and has a story, I never have, so I had to write him into one. Also, when I wrote the book, I'd never gone to Madam Marie's though I'd walked by it a thousand times. I went in recently, thinking it was time. Someday maybe I'll tell someone what she told me. For now, I'll just say grace comes in a lot of forms.
Jennifer van Alstyne asks me thoughtful questions at SOMETHING ON PAPER about race in my life, how A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race came to be, my new book Jersey Mercy, and more.
Over the last couple of years since Hurricane Sandy, as I wrote the poems that became JERSEY MERCY, I took thousands of pics and videos of the Jersey Shore. With the help of editor Caleb Rechton, also an artist and writer, some of these have been curated along with a mashup of four of the poems in the book to make this trailer. The book is coming soon from Black Lawrence Press, my third with them.