Today’s poem on video, “present time”, was written back in late November and recorded in early February, both of which feel like a lifetime ago as I’m writing today.
I suppose it’s appropriate that I post this video today as this is my last day of “strange freedom”, as I put it a little over nine months ago, before starting a new job tomorrow. I’d love to say I’m excited about it, but I’m not. Relieved that I’m not going to go completely broke, yes. Grateful that I have a way to support myself when so many do not, yes. Happy that I’m going to survive, yes. Excited, no.
These last nine months have been a wonderfully productive time for me. I’ve grown by leaps and bounds. It was absolutely necessary that I take this time with myself, for myself and my own work, and I have no doubt about that. Even so, it’s been a huge drain financially to go without an income for nine months. And once again I have failed, for whatever reason, to translate my most heartfelt passion into livelihood.
I still believe there is a need for what I have to offer. My life would actually be a lot easier if I didn’t believe it. But need and demand are not the same thing. There may be a need. I may be right about that. However, there doesn’t seem to be much of a demand. Or perhaps I just haven’t figured out how to deliver what I have to offer to those who would find it valuable. Or maybe I haven’t fully defined it yet.
When I left my last job nine months ago, in all the uncertainty I felt about what my future might hold, I was sure of one thing: by the time I either found another job or ran out of money, my second book would be out. But Scapegoat’s Cross remains as it has been ever since September 2009, a completed manuscript with no artwork and no path to publication. This is one of the most difficult realities I have to accept as I prepare to move back into cubicleland.
Writing, for me, has always had the qualities of a trance, a charm, a spell. It requires a suspension of disbelief on my part: the suspension of my disbelief in myself. It requires me to believe that what I have to say, and how I’m going to say it, will be meaningful and interesting to others. This is a fragile state, magical and mysterious, that can last for moments or months, in which every word matters and every thought or feeling might last forever, if only I’m quick enough to catch it.
At some point, the trance always ends; the charm fades; the spell is broken. My words, thoughts, and feelings seem ordinary again, and there’s nothing left to write.
I feel like that wonderful trance I’ve been in since Iron Man Family Outingbegan to resurrect itself in September 2007 may be coming to its end, not because I have nothing left to say or nothing left to give, but because the material realities of my life are beginning, once again, to overwhelm my inner vision. I’m simply not going to have the time, the energy, and the opportunity for writing, and for the deep self-work that is the foundation of the writing, and I know it.
Furthermore, I seem to have maxed out all of the channels I’ve been using to draw new folks to my work. Readership for Iron Man Family Outing seems to have peaked and, as I said previously, Scapegoat’s Cross is still dead in the water. The outer side of my work seems to have stagnated and now I can feel the inner side beginning to shut down as well.
Musician Joe Strummer once said, “Songs don’t tend to come to you if there’s no outlet for them.” This has certainly been true in my experience. When I feel I don’t have an appropriate outlet for my work, my creative flow just stops dead. Maybe that’s not happening now, but it sure feels that way to me.
In any case, today is my last day of freedom, freedom that no longer feels strange, but natural. Tomorrow will be different.
If, as I suspect, my well is running dry, I may not post again for a while. In the event that I’m correct about that, I’d like to leave everyone with these three thoughts:
Men are hungry for ways to access their emotions safely. No man wants to open up and be shamed or scared into shutting back down again.
Poetry is both undervalued and underutilized as a means to move into the heart of our experience, especially for men.
The other men I’ve met (and I met some amazing men at Mike Lew’s male survivors workshop yesterday) who are working to recover from childhood abuse are some of the bravest men on the planet.
I hope I’ve done something to bring the truth of these three statements home to some other people. Men need understanding and encouragement if they are to do better. They need to be seen as they truly are. We all need that. We all deserve it.
I still believe there is a different life, a better life, a wholly and completely natural and heartfelt life that serves my needs as it serves the needs of others, waiting inside me to be lived. But I won’t be living it tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day. Perhaps that life is still out there somewhere in my future, but now there is only now.
The subject of today’s poem is grief, or more to the point, my fear of feeling and expressing my grief. Actually, fear is much too mild a word for what I feel when I get close to my grief, sadness, and pain. A far more accurate word would be terror.
The source of this terror is not a mystery. I clearly remember the words I heard countless times as a child: Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about. This was not an idle threat, as I had the great misfortune to discover many times when I was unable to “control myself” in time to avoid the consequences of my own tears. Crying only brought more pain. Tears only meant more tears. Any open expression of grief, sadness, and pain was a potential threat to my very existence, and over time I learned to hold those feelings tight, deep inside myself, to survive.
This conditioning against explicit expressions of grief and sadness didn’t end with home and family. It continued in school, with teachers and coaches, on the playground, and with friends. Like every other boy, I knew that crying was the worst sin I could commit in public. On those few occasions when I was unable to avoid doing it, the shame, the isolation, and the horror I felt were beyond words.
By the time I was into my teens, I pretty much had the crying thing well under control. It just didn’t happen anymore, not around others and not when I was alone either. But I still had one more defining experience ahead of me.
When I was almost 23, I was going through a very long and difficult breakup with my first girlfriend. We’d moved across the country together when I was 19, from New York to Texas, and lived together for several years, but now we were each living in our own places for the first time, and I was finding it very difficult.
One evening she came over to visit, and as we were talking, I began to cry. I’d never cried in front of her before, not even when she’d cheated on me, but this time I simply couldn’t help myself. I missed her, I was struggling with school and finances, and I was just so damn lonely. Her response was immediate: “If you don’t stop crying, I’m leaving.” The last thing I wanted in that moment was to be left all alone, so I buttoned right up. And I stayed buttoned up for years afterward.
Those were the lessons I learned about feeling and expressing grief and sadness. I learned that crying brings pain, punishment, violence, shame, rejection, isolation, and abandonment. I learned that crying only makes things worse. I learned to fear my own grief. I learned that tears can be like death.
Many years of hard personal work have shown me that allowing myself to feel and express my sadness and grief is a healthy and necessary part of being fully human. It is liberating. It’s completely natural. It’s cleansing. It brings peace and perspective. It is a source of great strength, an answer and an antidote to anger, and a door to forgiveness.
I’ve cried, wept, sobbed, moaned, and howled through tears many, many times, and it hasn’t killed me yet. To the contrary, I always feel much better, much freer, and much more present with myself afterward. And yet that deep conditioning I described still holds some sway over me. I’m still afraid to cry.
Sometimes that fear stops me and sometimes it doesn’t. As expressed in today’s poem, the key to accessing my grief and sadness, to moving it up and out, is always right here with me in my body. The challenge is to feel the energy below the surface and let it rise even as I am feeling my fear. Maybe someday my tears can come without having to struggle through all that fear. That is my hope.
This is a previously unpublished poem that I wrote in September 1991. The next poem I wrote (“shadow world monsters”), also included in Scapegoat’s Cross, came to me over a year later in October 1992. I wouldn’t write another until August 2008, nearly sixteen years later.