Becoming the Living Poet

Archive for the ‘Destuckification’ Category

The new post up at Creative Juices Arts is just beautiful. Here’s my favorite quotation (that I’m seriously thinking of putting up on my wall), but you should definitely go read the whole thing: here.

There’s art that you might not like.

There’s art that is not technically sophisticated.

There’s art that might be judged harshly by some outside authority or arbitrary standard.

There’s art that does not please the artist.

There’s art that appears to be completely meaningless or confusing.

There’s art that doesn’t match the vision you had in your head.

There’s art that might bring up shame about your artistic skills.

There’s art that might get you in touch with some uncomfortable feelings.

There’s art that is not realistic.

There’s art that is messy.

There’s art that is childlike.

But none of it is really BAD art. There’s nothing wrong with the art itself. The art is just art.
What makes it seem bad is our expectations about what we think it SHOULD be.

Another day, another step away from perfectionism and towards accepting myself as a living poet. So glad I found this article to help me on my path.


I haven’t been blogging here lately. I could say the reason was because I was so so so busy, but it’d be a lie. The real reason I haven’t been blogging is that I’ve been crippled by perfectionism, self doubt, and fear of exposure. I’ve been afraid of what I might say.

I think my biggest secret has been how full of fear I am at pretty much every moment. I’m afraid I’m making the wrong life choices. I’m afraid I’m making the right life choices but that I’m too inept, slow, or cowardly to make them turn out as well as they could. I worry that I’m not that great a poet and not so hot a content writer either. I worry that I am a fraud and that everyone will find out at any moment.

In short I’m a first year MFA. I haven’t done things perfectly, and I’m not going to write this blog perfectly, but that’s OK.

The words on my about page pretty much say it all:

“Becoming the Living Poet is about honestly acknowledging the psychological and financial barriers to being a poet and confronting them with mindfulness, authenticity, and, on a good day, maybe even a little grace.”

I’m been anxiety-ridden and weakened by depression, but I’m still on the road to becoming a living poet.

Ready, set, go!

So I’m here online and I shouldn’t be. I’m here because I forgot my passport, couldn’t get on my plane, and had to pay a fee to transfer my ticket back to Sacramento to a week later than I wanted to leave Denmark.

For the last few days I’ve been alternately crying and disassociating because I’ve been having trouble dealing with how stupid and incompetent I feel. I’ve done some brainstorming on how I can be more organized and less distracted by anxiety in the future, but a part of me just doesn’t see the steps I’ve taken to do better next time as good enough. A part of me wants to hurt the lesson into me until I learn it good and proper this time.

This is a form of self abuse and I need to stop tolerating it.

A while back I wrote a post about self-forgiveness. It’s one of my favorite posts on the blog because every time I re-read it, it never fails to help me feel calmer and more accepting of my personal growth process.

In the post I quoted this passage on the Mayo Clinic’s article on forgiveness:

Also, remember that forgiveness often isn’t a one-time thing. It begins with a decision, but because memories or another set of words or actions may trigger old feelings, you may need to recommit to forgiveness over and over again.

It’s been a rough few days and it’s bound to be an even rougher week if I can’t ever so gently and ever so lovingly snap myself out of this doom spiral.

Yesterday morning as I was tumbling through the darkness, through the haze of emotional pain and indifference, I heard a tiny voice in the back of my head whispering urgently, Pull up! Pull up! The voice was my survival instinct and it was telling me if I didn’t point my psyche in a direction other than down I was going to crash hard, I was going to hurt myself. While I am very grateful to that tiny voice that protects me time and again from full on comatosed, can’t leave the bed depression and physical self injury, that’s a lot of burden for one tiny voice to shoulder. I need to stop pushing myself towards some sort of psychological abyss and expecting my sense of self preservation to pull me back from the brink in the nick of time.

In short, I need to make good on this promise to become my own best friend. I need to stop casting the first stone whenever I make a mistake.

My partner and I have been having a lot of communication problems lately, mostly because I’ve been so clogged up with shame over the mistake I made and also because a part of me has been expecting my partner to help make it right for me. My partner hasn’t been able to do or say much to stop the pain because it’s no longer my partner’s forgiveness I am seeking, that was given long ago. The person who refuses to be compassionate is myself towards myself.

I decided to catch up on a few Freak Revolution posts in the hopes of finding something that would either help alleviate some of the angst or at least help remind me not to expect the person I love to fix it for me. (Freak Revolution is a blog about communication and self acceptance. Not sure why I haven’t added it to my blog roll yet. I read it all the time. I’m remedying that now.) I came across a post that did both. It’s called The Little Girl and the Hammer.

The post is about a difficult time in the author’s childhood right after her parents had divorced when she felt that the only time she could get positive attention was when she was injured so after healing from a broken wrist she tried to break her own ankle with a hammer so that the positive attention wouldn’t stop. When she realized she couldn’t intentionally injure herself, she became very clutzy and suffered a lot more injuries that she did and did not intentionally cause depending upon your definition of intention.

Now I don’t think that’s why I forgot my passport. I don’t think I unconsciously wanted to push back an already difficult move on a tight deadline by a whole week and cost myself $500 in flight and train fees (the airport is in Copenhagen, not Aarhus, so one of the things I had to pay for was the two way ticket back to Aarhus to take the 3 hour train ride of shame back to my departure point). I do think the fact that I got literally feverish with depression and cried on and off for days after making the mistake has a lot to do with how and when my needs got met when I was growing up.

Like the writer in The Little Girl and the Hammer, I too had a somewhat difficult relationship with my mother. I wasn’t neglected, but my mother was a very emotional person (not unlike I am now, really). She was a single mother, not at all ready to have a child, who did as good a job as she could have under the circumstances as she struggled to feed and cloth me and keep a roof over my head. She was a survivor, a refugee from an alcoholic family and a short, but disastrous marriage.

From an early age I had the impression that the odds were stacked against us. My mom was holding back the big scary world as best she could, and it was my responsibility to help in the only way I could, to be as strong as she was. Unfortunately I was a very sensitive child, so that often didn’t work out too well. My mom wasn’t always terribly sympathetic of my eccentricities, but she did care about me deeply, she just didn’t always have the patience necessary to deal with my moods. Thinking back I can recognize a great deal of my mother in how I often see the world, a long series of catastrophes that need attending too with brief respites of peace which are to be aggressively defended from any intrusion of negativity.

My mother was dealing with her own issues and I don’t blame her for this in any way, but it seems to me that I was taught the lesson that minor sadness, anger, and pain should be dealt with as quietly as possible and that the only hurt that warranted another person’s attention was disaster level hurt. Thus, I learned to hold in my pain for as long as I could and then if I couldn’t keep it invisible, fall apart as completely and dramatically as possible to ensure I got sympathy for the pain I was supposed to be hiding.

Acknowledging that those were the coping mechanisms I learned as a child, it’s time for my adult self to further acknowledge that there are other ways of coping with emotional pain.

I’ve spent many years of my life hoping the pain would just go away. I’d go to college (nope, still dealing with anxiety and depression), graduate from college and get a job I enjoyed (still there), get into a healthy relationship with a person who loved and respected me (still anxious and depressed, though admittedly less than when I was in emotionally abusive relationships).

It isn’t my external circumstances that cause the anxiety and depression. Admittedly, lapses in self respect that cause me to put myself in bad circumstances and do self destructive things (like not doing the self care I needed in order to calm my anxiety long enough to focus on packing properly and thus nearly trapping myself in a foreign country) add fuel to the emotional instability fire, but these are just symptoms.

The real problem is that I get so wrapped up in the ‘shoulds’ and the endless layers of guilt, anxiety, and self-loathing that surround not doing a task perfectly that I forget to ask myself a more fundamental question: What do I need to ensure that this task gets done and that my emotional needs are met while I’m completing it?

So OMG I need to pack, but I don’t know where to start, ahh, ahh, ahh, what if I forget something?!?!?! doesn’t address the underlying question: I’m feeling anxious right now and trying to avoid the source of anxiety, what do I need to feel less afraid and overwhelmed? What do I need right now to ensure that I don’t forget anything and can get home safely?

The answer was probably to sit down, make a cup of tea, and write a list of everything that needed to be in my suitcase, and then possibly to have my partner read over the list to see if I’d forgotten anything. And most importantly, to forgive myself for the things I couldn’t finish before I left, and focus on the things that had to be finished in order to leave.

I recently read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and came upon this great quote:

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are pecularily in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our self-image is untenable – their false notions of us.

I am ready to recommit myself to the path of self love and self-forgiveness. I am ready to stop crying, brush off the mistakes of the past however egregious, and move forward in the quest to find housing in San Francisco and begin my studies as an MFA poet. I am prepared and committed to offer myself encouragement when I stumble, rather than condemnation.

When I was writing this post I also ran into this quote, which was a heartening reminder of what’s really important:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. — Theodore Roosevelt

Right now on my about page there are two underlined sections. There is the sentence fragment: you’ve definitely come to the wrong place near the top of the page. The fragment is at the end of the following sentence:

If you’re looking for sage advice from a famous poet who’s published a small library and won a host of prestigious awards then you’ve definitely come to the wrong place!

At the bottom of the page is this sentence:

I’m writing this blog for myself to an imaginary reader. If you exist, you can read along if you like…

Last week, immediately after identifying some literary magazines I’d like to submit to I threw myself headlong into another project which I didn’t write about here because I was, quite frankly, not sure if I was going to do it or not.

If you’re curious I haven’t yet submitted to the two lit mags I said I would submit to. I will check in with you next week about my progress. Sometimes I suspect that many of the projects I complete I do so in an attempt to put off other projects I’m avoiding, but that’s a musing for another time.

You know the thing I was working on, that I didn’t tell you about?

Well, I did it.

I entered the Art of Nonconformity’s Unconventional Writing Contest.

I don’t want to speculate about whether or not I’m going to win. Let time tell that. Either way you’ll get to read the entry. If I win I’ll post a link to the article, if I lose I’ll post the whole article.

I do want to talk about what I learned about how I feel about this blog after entering the contest.

I learned that, shock of shocks, despite the almost militant declarations on my about page that I don’t care if anyone is reading or what readers think, I want people to come to my blog and read what I’ve written. I want people to leave comments. I want people to retweet my links.

If I didn’t want that I wouldn’t have entered the contest.

And yet after I sent in the entry, after the initial blush of excitement over the article had faded, a little voice in my head let out a trembling whisper:

If you win this contest, you’ll lose all that’s left of your invisibility. They’ll be nowhere to hide. This blog won’t be safe anymore. It will be filled with readers!

I think it was two fears that initially caused me to latch-on to the concept of invisible readers:

1. That no on would read my blog and I’d feel embarrassed and blocked talking to myself.

2. That people would read my blog and find it simultaneously too academic and too emo. In short that people would read my blog and hate it.

The concept of ‘invisible readers’ was a wonderful safety net because it served as a reminder that even if no one showed up or everyone hated what I had written, the audience in my mind was more important than any living hostile audience.

I am grateful to my invisible readers because they gave me a comfort zone in which to start this blog and continue for as long as I have.

But gratitude aside it’s time to let the invisible readers go.


Because I have real readers now and I don’t feel that I can honor and connect with them properly if I keep referring to them as invisible readers.

I also don’t think it’s healthy to assume that all real readers will be hostile and bored.

It’s time to stand up and say I’m a nonconformist and an academic and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m ok with other people thinking I’m too weird and too serious.

I’ve been doing a pretty good job of being my rambly, over-analytical, insecure self in this space and it’s felt good.

It’s time to acknowledge that this might not be an empty room and that’s ok.

Or this might be a party that no one shows up to and that’s ok.

I think the most important thing I can do both for myself and this blog right now is to stop trying to rigidly control what it’s for.

While I was thinking about and working on this post I reread several of Havi’s Blogging Therapy posts, the series that pretty much got me here. (The two above links are from that series.)

Something she says in the Why Even Bother When Other People Are Doing It Better? post always comforts me:

You can’t see how useful it is for other people to know that stuff is hard for you too or that you’re also going through things that they experience.

But the rest of us know. We, your “right people”, can see it. And we need you.

So I’m going to make two very small changes to this site:

1. I’m going to change the about page to be more welcoming to potential readers.

2. I’m going to try to be brave enough to acknowledge the possibility of a real living audience when I write.

Maybe I’ll even leave questions for people to comment on from time to time. I’ve been terrified of doing that for fear that no one would comment and I would feel alone and vulnerable, but I think in the last three months of blogging I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can give myself the validation that I need without being defensive about it.

I don’t need to announce every few lines that I don’t care if anyone comments or not to know that I’ll be ok if no one comments. I’ll be ecstatic if they do comment, but I’m no longer afraid that it will wound me if they don’t.

I realize writing this post won’t be a magic spell that generates traffic and commenters, but I want to acknowledge aloud that readers are welcome, commenters are welcome, and that I would be open to this site someday becoming a community.

In the next couple of weeks I’m going to start thinking about who this blog’s ‘right people’ are and share that information with you when I’ve fleshed out some ideas.

My resolution: I will strive to not be so dominated by my fear of being harmed by false hopes that I risk killing the true ones.

You block your dream when you allow your fear to grow bigger than your faith. -Mary Manin Morrissey


In my last post, I’ve Got a Gratitude Problem, I was trying to do some destuckification around the concept of gratitude.

Last post I got at some sources of the stuck. This post I was hoping to come to some actual conclusions about the topic at hand. (Poet closes eyes and crosses fingers.)

So what about this accusation of ingratitude? What is a debt of gratitude? What does a person have to do to repay a favor – the favor of having someone watch your car, your cat, and your stuff for two months; or the favor of having a person drop out of college and live in near poverty for the first ten years of your life because they didn’t abort you as perhaps they should have?

I remember a monologue Sidney Poitier delivers in the film, ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’. In the scene the main character’s father is trying to forbid him from marrying the woman he loves because it will be an interracial relationship.

You listen to me. You say you don’t want to tell me how to live my life. So what do you think you’ve been doing? You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got, and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me. Let me tell you something. I owe you nothing! If you carried that bag a million miles, you did what you’re supposed to do! Because you brought me into this world. And from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me like I will owe my son if I ever have another. But you don’t own me! You can’t tell me when or where I’m out of line, or try to get me to live my life according to your rules. You don’t even know what I am, Dad, you don’t know who I am. You don’t know how I feel, what I think. And if I tried to explain it the rest of your life you will never understand. You are 30 years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be. And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs! You understand, you’ve got to get off my back! Dad… Dad, you’re my father. I’m your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man. Now, I’ve got a decision to make, hm? And I’ve got to make it alone, and I gotta make it in a hurry. So would you go out there and see after my mother?

Of course Sidney Poitier’s character is fighting for social justice and I am fighting for my right to admit that I might be in the early stages of clinical depression. I think Poitier has the moral high ground here, but here’s what I take from it:

On the surface the speech smacks of ingratitude. To tell your father I owe you nothing! The gall! And yet its Sidney Poitier and when Sidney Poitier says something every word rings with a terrible conviction and a hard won wisdom. The underlying theme of the speech for me is choice: who has it and who doesn’t. You brought me into this world!

As pro-choice as I am I understand that abortion is not an easy choice for any woman, and certainly not for a Catholic girl from a small town. My mother was probably just as terrified to not have me and go to hell as she was to have me with a father who was in no condition to provide any emotional or financial assistance. Neither choice was a picnic, but she made her choice. She chose to have me. I didn’t choose to be born, and honestly I’m glad we don’t live in some strange ‘Twilight Zone’ universe where I could have chosen whether or not I should have been born. Because I like my life. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good solid life with a lot of potential. But I can’t help but wonder if my mother wouldn’t have been better off if she hadn’t had me forcing her to marry someone she didn’t truly love who would be gone from her life within the first two years of mine. She could have finished college. She could have done a million things if she didn’t have me weighing her down.

If I had chosen to be born I really would owe her a debt of gratitude for the rest of my life. As it is I didn’t choose. She did. So I can stop feeling like I owe her lifelong obedience for the favor of carrying me to term because it was her responsibility to know what she was getting into, not me, a pre-person who didn’t really exist yet.

So that settles the obligation issue for having been born, but what of everything she’s done for me since then. What of this latest good turn?

I realize I’ve been looking at gratitude as if it existed in a vacuum independent of related concepts, probably because it’s taken on this odd spiritual journey connotation of late. When we bring gratitude back into the world of human relations, gratitude is ideally the social impulse that makes giving and receiving pleasurable for all parties. When you are the giving party, gratitude eases the tension inherent in overcoming the self-preserving desire to hoard your own energy and resources.

Giving is, of course, a social impulse too. It ensures the survival of the community and it carries with it the hope of future reciprocity.

What I’m getting at with this new social definition of gratitude is that I want to take a step back and shift the emphasis to the origin of gratitude: the act of giving.

The concept of giving without a prearranged agreement of repayment is called altruism.

Altruism is central to Christianity and the teachings of Jesus Christ. True altruism is universal and purely selfless.

When I was looking up the concept of altruism I found this poem by Molly Peacock that asks, What if there really were a you beyond me? Brilliant poem!

I was also reminded that not everyone is a fan of altruism, Rand for example. Although it was interesting to note the objectionist argument that gratitude is necessary because receiving some unearned gifts is inevitable.

Although I’m not nearly so critical of the concept of altruism as Rand was, it does seem to be a potentially problematic practice. An altruistic person is supposed to be altruistic in all instances and, pure altruism as a practice, to gently reference the life story of Jesus, tends to lead to martyrdom. Martyrdom only makes sense if one believes in an afterlife in which such earthly sacrifices are rewarded.

As an agnostic it doesn’t make any sense for me to adopt a life philosophy that is dependent upon the religious beliefs of the people who interact with me, i.e. Do you believe in heaven? Yes? Excellent, then you’re allowed to do me a favor.

I think what’s really eating at me with the concepts of giving and gratitude is that I want the other person to benefit from the interaction, but I don’t want to be harmed sometime down the road from some hidden cost I didn’t foresee. I dislike it when others sacrifice for my benefit, but not to such an extreme degree that I want to sacrifice myself to protect them from harm.

Not to say that self-sacrifice isn’t sometimes necessary, but it seems to me that self-sacrifice isn’t inevitable. It’s a costly necessity in situations where someone miscalculated something. The intent of both parties should always be mutual benefit.

My partner, who’s a biologist, suggested that a good model for thinking about a favor that cannot be repaid would be commensalism, a type of symbiotic relationship wherein one organism benefits and the other organism neither loses nor gains anything from the interaction.

I could accept such an interaction. It’s not ideal, but at least it would be in keeping with my most basic moral tenet: Do no harm.

To use a biological concept as a model for human interactions is problematic at best, but it’s nice to know that there are instances in nature where benefits do not accrue unilaterally, and yet the non-benefiting party is not markedly disadvantaged from the interaction. In short its nice to know that there is some middle ground between mutual benefit and parasitism.

Symbiosis makes me think of a Freak Nation post I read a few weeks ago titled Power Over, Power With:

When you’re in a power-over dynamic, the one with power isn’t going to easily give it up. Power over others corrupts the ones with it and weakens the ones without it.

I’m not sure if anything I said earlier supports this conclusion, but I think that gratitude ceases to be gratitude and becomes indebtedness when it creates a power over dynamic. Because a power over dynamic corrupts both parties and weakens the relationship in which both the giving and the gratitude are presumably occurring, healthy gratitude does not extend into a relationship of debt or prescribed ownership of future emotional, financial, or material resources.

Gratitude is, as stated earlier, above all else a social impulse. When it becomes a cancer on an otherwise healthy relationship it has become perverted from its original purposes, and should be excised accordingly for the good of both parties.

Aha, a conclusion, maybe not a philosophically sound conclusion, but a conclusion nonetheless. That’s a wrap.

No Thoughts......

Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful. -Buddha

Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive. -Edward Gibbon

The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings. -Eric Hoffer

I’ve got a gratitude problem.

Whenever I try to express gratitude I feel terrified that the message isn’t come across to the other person.

Complicating matters further is the fact that for me the concept of gratitude tends to be intimately connected to the concepts of debt and obligation. Whenever someone does me a good turn I worry about how I’ll be able to repay them. What if I am never able to repay them and have to spend the rest of my life carrying around a heavy metaphysical debt? Or worse what if they have pre-expectations about how they would prefer to be repaid and ask for something from me that I can’t give? Not only will I be in their debt, but they’ll regret having helped me.

I love the concepts of reciprocity and trade because they’re transparent with reasonably well-defined parameters. Gratitude is opaque and people to whom you are supposed to be grateful tend to have a long memory.

Gratitude, debt, obligation, reciprocity, trade – time to do some unpacking.

On Psyblog, a positive psychology blog, I found 10 Grateful Steps to Happiness and Practicing Gratitude Can Increase Happiness by 25%.

These articles seem to imply that gratitude is less a way of relating to other people and more a state of mind. A grateful state of mind involves being able to see the beneficial aspect of a situation, even if it seems counter-intuitive. It involves recognizing improvements in one’s circumstances and celebrating small pleasures like kind words, pleasant weather, and days that don’t involve respiratory failure.

I like these aspects of gratitude a great deal. I feel like the universe (or a deity if you prefer) gives and takes on its own time line and that not appreciating moments when the universe ‘decides’ to be kind is wasteful and self-defeating.

What I really have a problem with is when someone goes above and beyond for my benefit.

According to positive psychology cultivating gratitude is one of the most important steps to improving one’s happiness. Maybe that’s why the whole concept of gratitude produces one big ginormous mound of stuck for me. It feels like the studies are saying if you’re not grateful you won’t be happy. Thus you have to be grateful, but being grateful increases my vulnerability to other people’s opinions of me. Perhaps I should stop accepting favors from people? That would close off the gap in my armor and yet positive psychology also says that asking for help when you need it is also an important factor in happiness. Trying to be happy can be such a catch-22 so much of the time.


It was at this point in the post when I got really stuck and stopped writing for several hours. I had lunch, did dishes, tried to think about other things, and tried, without much success, not to gnash my teeth at the idea that the concept of gratitude was apparently too complex or too ephemeral for me to grasp. It seemed apartent that gratitude was too something or other because it was slipping through my fingers.

Then I had a small breakthrough. I realized that the stuck surrounding the concept of gratitude was my fear of not being a happy person.

Over and over again I hear about how crucial gratitude is for preserving and improving happiness. The message seems clear. Gratitude is an imperative. If I can’t be grateful, then I can’t be happy, which places a big scary ‘should’ atop the subject.

I keep dancing around the issue of how ‘transparent’ to be in these blog posts.

I am frequently as vague and philosophical as possible to protect the identities of the innocent and the guilty.

At the end of her preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didian says:

People tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.

I agree with Didian. Perhaps it is because I am a writer, that I am a compulsive truth teller, a betrayer. I have no illusions about that being an amoral quality at best. It is certainly not a virtue.

When I was in Norcal during the internet blackout I stayed with my mother for a little over a week. Perhaps it is because she is of my blood that the words she chooses can open up my veins with great precision.

She did me a very good turn recently. She came down to San Diego to drive the Uhaul so I could drive my car up to Norcal and she offered to watch my stuff, my cat, and my car while I frolicked around Europe for two months. In the time I spent with her I tried to express my gratitude as sincerely as possible, but I could not give her the one thing she wanted from me – flawless mental health.

If you were truly grateful, you wouldn’t be so depressed and anxious. If you were truly grateful you’d be happier.

I wanted to do as she asked, but for whatever reason I had some nasty episodes that week, and couldn’t even pull myself together enough to fake stable.

The low point came when I had a panic attack in front of her new boyfriend who I had only just met the day before and when he was out of ear shot she complained to my aunt that her wacko daughter was trying to scare her boyfriend away.

Or maybe the low point came when she accused me of not having enough decorum to hide my emotions or being self centered and insensitive to other people’s feelings after I expressed some of my feminist opinions.

Hard to say. There were a lot of low points that week and I’m not an objective observer.

My mother’s words cut me, deeper than they’ve cut me in a long time, and it hardly mattered that her boyfriend later reported that he had found me smart, funny, and likable, and that upon hearing a positive review from the only person she needed me to impress she promptly apologized for her overly hasty accusations.

She had already reiterated the unspoken theme of my childhood: being yourself is always a choice and a selfish one at that. No one will like you as you really are so polish up that mask to a sparkling shine and keep it pulled over the scars and the blemishes at all times.

There’s a line from Tori Amos’ song, Jackie’s Strength that always resonated with me: If you love enough you lie a lot.

That’s often how it was with us when we were living together, particularly in high school. I pretended that her alcoholism didn’t hurt me and she pretended that she wasn’t an alcoholic. We both did it out of fear and a little love: fear of admitting that neither of us was happy and neither of us knew what to do about it, and a deeper fear that our unhappiness meant one of us didn’t love the other enough.

You see my mom was a single mother and I was her only daughter. Love was never optional. We were all we had. Love was necessary and expected.

But now that I’m older, I don’t want to pretend anymore. I know I have serious issues with anxiety and depression. They don’t prevent me from being a functional person, but they are not some temporary rough patch I’m going through. They have been with me for years and will likely not be vanishing by magic anytime soon. I’m working on them. I’m getting better every week, sometimes every day. In San Diego I was seeing a therapist. I write this blog and I talk about things with people I trust. In San Francisco I plan to start therapy again.

My mom is the daughter of an alcoholic too, so it’s hard for her to see someone else unhappy and not make it about her. It’s hard to believe that a person in pain isn’t going to turn on you if you don’t ‘fix’ the problem as quickly as possible. I know because it’s hard for me too.

Unfortunately I am in a lot of emotional pain right now, not 24 hours a day and not even 7 days a week, but often, and I want to own that pain. I want to pick it up, hold it under a lamp, and examine it until I understand it. I want to sooth it with compassionate words of understanding until it feels safe enough to be a little quieter and easier to manage. I want to own it as a part of myself. What I don’t want to do is run from it, repress it, and pretend it doesn’t exist because I’ve been doing that for over a decade now and it’s given me panic attacks and this vague feeling that nothing I do is ever good enough.

Clearly my pain is not following the rules of B-movie monsters. It will attack me at random intervals whether I turn around to look at it or not, so I might as well take a good long look to understand what I’m up against.

But my mom doesn’t like my destuckification journey. She thinks I am dwelling too much on my feelings. She thinks I should just ‘get over it’, ‘stop living in the past’, ‘move on already’.

I am afraid she is right, but as ungrateful as it makes me feel, I cannot agree with her on this point. I cannot just get over the things that have happened to me. I can work through them and try to get to a point where I accept the lessons that traumatic events have taught me, the strength those experiences have given me. I can accept that I would not be the person I am today if my life had taken a different path, but walking a path covered in broken glass still hurts. The useful callouses that cover your feet after the wounds have healed don’t make the experience pleasant.

This is a good place for a pause. For more ponderings on the theme of gratitude please read What is Ingratitude?

Driving by John Newlove

You never say anything in your letters. You say,
I drove all night long through the snow
in someone else’s car
and the heater wouldn’t work and I nearly froze.
But I know that. I live in this country too.
I know how beautiful it is at night
with the white snow banked in the moonlight.

Around black trees and tangled bushes,
how lonely and lovely that driving is,
how deadly. You become the country.
You are by yourself in that channel of snow
and pines and pines,
whether the pines and snow flow backwards smoothly,
whether you drive or you stop or you walk or you sit.

This land waits. It watches. How beautifully desolate
our country is, out of the snug cities,
and how it fits a human. You say you drove.
It doesn’t matter to me.
All I can see is the silent cold car gliding,
walled in, your face smooth, your mind empty,
cold foot on the pedal, cold hands on the wheel.


In the week I’ve been in Denmark I have added updates to Facebook and Twitter. I have taken over 100 photographs. I have posted photos to facebook and emailed photos to friends. I have bought postcards which I plan to write, address, and send before the week is out. Am I more afraid of forgetting or of being forgotten, I couldn’t say, but there is an urgency to my communications as if a bridge across a river that cannot be forded is being swept away by a flood and I am trying to send across my last few messengers before the bridge is gone completely.

I think it will take time to trust that there is a full life waiting for me in San Francisco. I know there is a creative life waiting for me, but if I am going to keep my commitment to being honest with myself, I have to admit that I am not a solitary person. I need time to myself, time to write and think, but I also need people. I need people to care about and people who care about me, and while I couldn’t find the writer’s community I was seeking in San Diego, I had the most wonderful friends that anyone could ask for.

In the past month or two I’ve been doing a headcount of all the people in my life. Who am I good with keeping in touch with? Who is falling through the cracks? Who have I been out of contact with for too long to contact again? Everyone I met in high school falls into the latter category save one. Two years shy of the high school reunion and all but one of my closest high school friends will be strangers before I see them again.

I fear that in a few years many of the people in San Diego whom I have confided in, comforted, and shared my life with will hardly know me. They will be strangers to me again as if we had never met.

I’ve struggled with this concept a lot in the past. If people drop off your radar does that mean it was not the right time to maintain a friendship, the necessary conditions were not present and no amount or forcing it would have made a difference in the outcome? Or does it mean that some part of you failed to care enough to make the person a high enough priority to keep them in your life?

It’d be easy to say that it was always one or the other. The first interpretation is seductive because it neatly liberates both parties from suffering any of the responsibility for the death of the friendship. The second interpretation is tempting for me in a different way. It allows me to place all of the blame for every person left behind neatly atop my own shoulders and thereby understand the universe in the simplist possible terms. Friendship doesn’t last forever because I’m too selfish to allow it to.

A friend whom I lost contact with a few years ago once told me that it was not a tragedy that people drifted apart, it was a miracle that they connected with each other at all. He also contended that our friendship was unlikely to withstand the test of time, but that knowing that it would end did not detract from its value.

He was right on both counts.

We eventually lost contact because he became very self-destructive and at times rather cruel and I eventually decided that the pain of having him in my life out-weighed the value of the friendship. This is a very dramatic example of the death of a friendship. Most friendships fade rather than collapse. I bring it up because I think it neatly illustrates that the interest of both parties in continuing the friendship is a part of the conditions that make a friendship possible.

When that friendship failed I felt I was abandoning him at a time when he most needed me. With distance and a change in perspective, I perceive the way the events unfolded much differently. In a sense we both stopped caring and ceased to put forth the effort that maintaining the friendship required, but it wasn’t necessarily because we didn’t on some level still care about each other. It was because our priorities had shifted due to the different directions our lives had taken us. He was at a point in his life where he saw his friends as a captive audience and himself as a performer. I was at a point in my life where I needed to stop casually allowing myself to be hurt by other people simply because I had a reasonably high pain threshold. I didn’t realize it at the time, but having someone near him who refused to challenge his inappropriate behavior was the last thing he needed to make positive changes in his life. As for me, I understood on some level that I couldn’t make any progress in convincing myself that I had value if I continued to devote time to people whose behavior towards me contested the theory.

I guess what I’m getting at is that the people who are in my life right now have remained my friends because they are good for me and they think I’m good for them. That wasn’t always true in the past, but it’s true as of right now.

The most common reason for a friendship to end is that the mutual benefit of the interaction has been lost.

In some ways I hate the connotations of the word benefit. I worry that it implies mutual exploitation, and would like to clarify that a benefit can be as simple as enjoying another’s company or feeling inspired by someone else’s thought processes. Once we put aside the idea that benefits have to be material; it seems perfectly obvious that mutual benefit has to be a part of the friendship equation. Mutual harm is not a friendship, its a form of very sophisticated abuse. A friendship where only one person is benefiting will eventually lead to resentment and thus one or both parties will eventually be harmed. The resenter will want restitution or the resented will feel threatened and attack preemptively. A friendship where no one benefited would seem to contradict the universal maxim that friendships are valuable.

The take home point here is that I can let go of my fear of losing my friends in San Diego because, as harsh as it sounds, if I lose contact with a friend then in all likelihood one of us is probably better off for the loss because the benefit of the friendship was no longer apparent.

In moments when I can separate myself from my own abandonment issues, I find it somewhat comforting to acknowledge that if I lose touch with someone it will most likely be because time is finite and there were other things taking up that person’s time (or my time for that matter) which offered more immediate benefit. In a situation like that it is right that the friendship fade gracefully rather than that one person force it to continue.

That isn’t to say that I’m not going to cling and grasp like nobody’s business to try to stay in touch with the people who are close to me. I will do what I am able, but some people will inevitably be lost to me in this life transition. They will go on to meet new people who will fill the niche I used to fill in their lives and I will probably do the same.

That’s not a tragedy. That’s part of the beautiful resilience and adaptability of human life.

I will remember my friends because the time I spent with them left a permanent imprint. I think that’s part of what it means to be a ‘true friend,’ to make a positive impact on a person that may be subtle, but is nevertheless unique, personal, and non-transitory.

My favorite friendship quote:

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival. — C.S. Lewis

A good quote for the occasion:

Can miles truly separate you from friends… If you want to be with someone you love, aren’t you already there? — Richard Bach